NEW YORK—New York City’s subway system is the backbone of one of the largest economic hubs in the world. But it is old, and the entity that manages it is struggling to keep it in good condition—all while providing transportation to more than 5 million people every day.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s debt has risen beyond $32 billion and money from four fare increases in five years has barely covered rising costs—such as paying off debt interest—let alone improving service or paying off the debt principal.
Money and investments are the main topics of discussion for future planning: where to get money and where to put it into use—expansion or upgrading the existing system.
The sheer scale of the subway system in New York (5.3 million riders per day; 468 stations) makes it difficult to compare to the much smaller ones in the United States, such as San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.
Rather, systems in international hubs such as London, Hong Kong, Madrid, Seoul, and Sao Paulo are more comparable for insight into funding, fares, and expansion. New York, London, and Hong Kong, are all raising fares in 2013.
This is an article exploring the differences and similarities of New York’s subway system against the international ones.
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New York’s system, like those in London, Paris, Berlin, and Madrid, was built around the turn of the 20th century. Unlike all other systems examined for this piece, the New York City mass transit system operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
It is also unique for its use of express tracks to speed some commutes—foresight the early planners had.
The extensive mesh of 660 miles of in-service track and equipment uses different technologies, which presents its own set of challenges.
Signals on the MTA system date back decades—51 percent are more than 40 years old. Putting in signals that allow for upgrades, such as faster trains, has been a slow process.
For decades after its subway system was built, New York City ignored upgrading it, according to Yoo Kwang-Kiun, professor at the College of Railroad Science at Seoul’s Korea National University of Transportation.
“Even if the typical life cycle of transit systems is 40 years, New York failed to upgrade its system during this period,” he said in a phone interview. “Only recently is it upgrading its system.”
MTA’s New York City Transit, in charge of the subway system, began rebuilding “its seriously neglected infrastructure” in the early ’80s, said Kevin O’Connell, former chief transportation officer for transit’s department of subways in a 2005 City Council meeting, according to a transcript.
But, modern signaling equipment, which enables more trains to run per hour and more precise real-time train location, has been fully implemented only on the pilot L line thus far.
On the other hand, the systems in Hong Kong, Seoul, and Sao Paulo were constructed in the 1970s, enabling newer technology at the outset and easier upgrades.
Major systems outside New York City have been embracing automation because of increased safety benefits and cuts in labor costs. Some automated trains have one or no conductors, relying on computers to do the work.
Meanwhile, two train conductors are currently used on most trains in New York.
Some elected officials, as well as the Transport Workers Union Local 100, have protested any moves toward automation in New York, saying among other problems eliminating conductor positions puts passengers in danger during emergencies. Others, such as state Sen. Daniel Squadron, have backed moves toward more automation, but not full automation.
The International Association of Public Transport, based in Belgium, is in favor of more automation, as are experts The Epoch Times spoke to.
“Having fully automated systems makes operations more flexible and cheaper,” said Friedmann Kunst, with the Senate Department for Urban Development and the Environment of Berlin, in a phone interview. Automation is much easier, however, when building new systems or lines than converting old ones, he added.
Upgrades cost money, and the MTA is facing mounting debt while falling behind on its current infrastructure. Repairs get pushed back, and those that are done are funded with borrowed money.
“We’ve got literally hundreds of billions of dollars in capital needs and we have no idea how we’re going to fund it,” said William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “The only easy source is bonding. You’ve got $32 billion in bonds out already.”
Capital needs are maintenance projects and bonding is a form of borrowing money.
In London, fares have been raised for three years straight. They are raised principally to pay for expansion, including a recent round of investments into two rail lines in particular, according to Sir Peter Hall, professor of planning and regeneration at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.
“They will have to keep raising them … in order to pay for that investment,” he said in a phone interview. Hall, a huge critic of the system in the past, says, “The investment is already paying off.”
Not so in New York, where money from fare and toll increases—above inflation—only cover rising operating costs. Costs for the current expansions have shot above original projections.
Meanwhile, the MTA is borrowing more—$8.4 billion for its current capital program, according to a report from the state comptroller. Debt payments could rise to $3.3 billion by 2018, the report said.
“There isn’t a feeling that there’s an impending crisis, but there is,” said Jeffrey Zupan, senior fellow of transportation at the Regional Plan Association, one of the oldest analysis and planning organizations in the United States.
“There are so many hidden parts to the system that are old and in need of replacement and upgrade, and it’s not easy to make that case in the political arena that we’re in now,” Zupan added.
Transit advocates often say that many lawmakers are quick to criticize the MTA but don’t help come up with ways for the entity get up to speed.
More state funding is often cited as an attractive way for more funding (the MTA is basically a state agency; it receives subsidies from the state and the governor appoints the MTA’s chairman and CEO).
Measuring how independent a subway operating entity could be, farebox ratio is often cited by transit advocates in New York City when arguing for more government financial help. A figure below one means the entity has to get money from places other than fares, such as advertising or from the government, to break even or make money.
New York City: .420
But that case is more complex than at first glance, according to Gene Russianoff, staff attorney at the New York Public Interest Research Group’s Straphangers Campaign, who is often the first person anyone turns to for insight into New York’s subway system.
“It’s very hard, because the dollars are so big,” he said. “My group doesn’t think the subways are adequately subsidized by the state. The state says, “Well, we give you $4.5 billion in annual tax subsidies,’ and I can’t deny that in absolute terms that’s a lot, particularly in an era where the economy is as weak as it is here now. So a lot of our battle’s in the trenches.”
The MTA spent $116.7 billion in 2011 dollars on capital repairs since 1982, when five-year capital programs began, according to a report by the Permanent Citizen’s Advisory Committee to the MTA. Still, “we’re being left in the dust,” with no real expansion since 1940, said Russianoff.
For comparison, Transport for London received $5.5 billion in general and capital grants in 2011, as well as $11.5 billion to substantially expand its network. Yet Tokyo Metro, one of two operators in Tokyo, received only 4.1 billion yen ($47 million) in 2011, according to its press office.
Frustration over searching for but not realizing new streams of revenue was evident at the MTA’s last board meeting in December, where members voted for fare and toll increases because, many said, they were left with no choice. The increases are part of a package first introduced in 2009 under an agreement with then Gov. David Paterson.
“We’ve had three years to look at the package—unfortunately stakeholders have not been able to come up with a new sustainable [funding] mechanism,” said one board member, Mitchell Pally, at the meeting.
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