OPINION: Make New York City transit great again
Have you ridden the subway recently? If you have, you’ve probably had a less than stellar experience. If you think things have gotten worse for New York City’s subway riders, it’s because they have. Lines are frequently overcrowded and many train cars are more than 60 years old. Last month, New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli issued a report that showed that New York City subway trains are running later than they ever have. This chronic tardiness is the symptom of many things: an aging system, damage from Superstorm Sandy and underfunding.
It is also, worryingly, a preview of things to come. With the population of the five boroughs at an all-time high and growing, the strain on the mass transit system is only likely to grow. This will radiate pressure on our other transit infrastructure, including our roads, bridges and tunnels as more are forced above ground. Unless we get serious about addressing our impending transportation crises, we will all suffer.
Luckily a serious plan, and accompanying legislation, to address our current dilemma already exists. The plan is the Move New York Fair Plan and its principles are advanced by legislation introduced by Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. Implementing this plan is about three core ideas: treating all New Yorkers fairly regardless of how and where they travel in the city, funding the system for now and the future and ensuring community priorities are included in how we invest our infrastructure dollars.
Treating all New Yorkers Fairly: A central pillar of the plan is changing the way we toll New York’s bridges. Move NY would create a more rational tolling system that would lower tolls on the bridges and tunnels where outer-borough drivers are currently paying through the nose, and restore tolls on the bridges that are now free, so that all the crossings will cost the same amount. Yes, that does mean tolling East River bridges, but doing so would be a win for all New Yorkers.
Why should crossing the Rockaway bridge cost $4, while other residents are getting a free ride to drive to the most congested parts of the city on the Williamsburg, Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges? Move NY would fix this unfair tolling system, introducing new tolls for Manhattan-bound drivers going into the city at its most congested places and times while reducing tolls for outer-borough travel.
This toll money would also help address our principal challenge:
Funding our Subways and Busses: While Albany and City Hall have come to an agreement to meet the MTA’s capital needs, the current budget is nearly $700 million less than what was forecast as necessary to keep the system in a state of good repair. Continuing to short change the MTA’s capital plan will have serious consequences. From failing infrastructure (see potential L train closures) to possible massive fare hikes, short changing our transportation budget will further exacerbate the city’s dual transportation and inequality crises.
The Move NY plan would not only fund MTA capital needs, but would also create a $4.5 billion fund to fix and improve service on our public transit system. This would allow the MTA to provide new service for millions of New Yorkers, particularly those who live in so-called “transit deserts” that are not well-served currently by bus or subway lines. The extra funding stream will also ensure that working New Yorkers don’t bear the brunt of funding MTA capital needs in the form of frequent and steep fare increases.
Beyond keeping trains and busses running, and keeping mass transit affordable for all, the plan would have other tangible impacts, including:
Building a Better Future for our Communities: Move NY would mean less traffic on residential streets, especially less truck traffic. Take for example, Atlantic Avenue, where I both live and serve as the chairman of the Atlantic Avenue Business Improvement District board. Atlantic Avenue sees tons of truck traffic, much of it because drivers are “bridge shopping,” looking for toll-free crossings, instead of paying tolls to take the Battery Tunnel or the Verrazano. Less truck traffic would mean safer streets and less congestion. This is good for residents and businesses.
Finally, one of the best things about Move NY is that it would establish an unprecedented mechanism called the Transit Gap Investment Fund (TGIF). This fund would unlock $1 billion for local projects — money that will be divided equitably among Community Districts. With the creation of the TGIF, New Yorkers would have a say about the transit and street safety improvements that are most urgent. Communities could invest that money for things like fresh paint, much-needed repairs to elevators and other parts of subway stations and improved ADA accessibility.
Some New Yorkers are skeptical, and with good reason. Transit and transportation promises have been broken time and again. What makes this plan different is local control over transportation dollars. The challenges facing our public transportation system are huge, but Move NY puts forward the only workable, equitable and comprehensive vision for how to address those needs.
This is why, when a version of this plan was first introduced and debated last year three community boards representing areas of Downtown Brooklyn voted to support the plan. With a seat at the table, New Yorkers can make sure the funding raised by this fair tolling plan goes directly into the investments that will make our transit system even greater. That sounds like a good priority for 2016 to me.