OPINION: Is there hope for solving NYC’s mass transit woes?

September 5, 2018 Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Photo courtesy of Cagle Cartoons

Who is to blame for the endless problems in the city’s mass transit system, from the ceiling collapses at the Borough Hall subway station in Brooklyn, to the Second Avenue subway line that was completed four years late, to overcrowded subway platforms, delays and repeated failures to notify commuters of emergency repairs?

Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio both have the same answer: “Don’t blame me, blame him.” Over the past year, we have been witness to nonstop fingerpointing from the city and state leaders.

If you’re confused, join the club.

There are some things everyone can agree on. The rail lines are the dominant mode of transportation in the city. Despite justified concerns about automobile congestion in midtown and lower Manhattan, car drivers represent only a small fraction of the people coming and going. Last year, 1,727,366,607 people used the city’s subway system and its 472 stations. The average weekday ridership in 2017 was 5,580,845.

The so-called growing “car culture” in America is less evident in New York City. In fact, 54 percent of households here do not even own a car. They rely on public transportation. Of all people who commute to work, 41 percent use the subway, 24 percent drive alone, 12 percent take the bus, 10 percent walk to work, 2 percent travel by commuter rail, 5 percent carpool, 1 percent use a taxi, 0.6 percent ride a bicycle to work, and 0.2 percent travel by ferry.

The city has the largest mass transit system in America, followed by the system in Boston — and possibly in the world.

The city’s public transportation network, including subway trains, buses and commuter lines, is the “most extensive and among the oldest in North America.” The responsibility for managing the various components of the massive system belongs to several government agencies of which the largest is the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), a public benefit corporation in the state of New York. The MTA runs all the city’s subways and buses, and two of its three commuter rail networks.

Who runs the MTA? It’s complicated.

The MTA is governed by a 17-member board. Members are nominated by the governor, with four recommended by New York City’s mayor and one each by the county executives of Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Dutchess, Orange, Rockland and Putnam counties.

Former New York City Deputy Mayor Joe Lhota serves as chairman of the board. Lhota was appointed in January in by Gov. Cuomo to address some of the growing user frustration with the transit system that threatens future growth of the system. He is credited with bringing the New York City subway back from one of its darkest moments after Hurricane Sandy flooded the system in 2012.

How is he doing so far? Depends on who you ask, but most observers would probably say he hasn’t had enough time to make an impact.

Asked if Cuomo himself is to blame for the subway system failures, Benjamin Kabak, editor of the “Second Ave. Sagas” Twitter feed told Slate, “I think the governor in the short term is to blame. He has been very focused on the flashier elements of transit. He likes his ribbon cuttings. He likes his bridges with their flashing lights. He likes being in charge of the Second Avenue subway when it got him favorable headlines. But he hasn’t done a very good job of supporting the MTA on a day-to-day basis and really making sure that the agency is enjoying the political support that it needs in Albany to push projects through.”

Asked if bad relationship between the governor and the mayor is contributing to the problem, Kabak replied, “Absolutely. Cuomo is trying to get more money out of the city; the city is pointing fingers at Cuomo. The MTA is sort of set up where no single politician has to take responsibility for it, so everybody is finger-pointing.”

Exactly. The way the transit system is designed, no one is to blame.

As an example, Kabak said Penn Station is “uniquely awful.” The station is run by three different agencies. “The tracks are owned by Amtrak, but the MTA and New Jersey Transit both operate out of Penn Station. And you have had so many problems with aging infrastructure that it has become unsustainable.”

Kabak said public transit advocates have to battle the perception that “if you throw more money at the MTA, then things will magically be fixed.” He said the MTA actually has access to about $50 billion, but the MTA doesn’t spend money very well.

Why? Projects in New York take a lot of planning. There are environmental regulations, aging infrastructures, bidding regulations and a host of other problems including community resistance to massive construction projects and rider impatience.

Is there a solution for the transit woes? There is. First, stop the fingerpointing. Get Cuomo, de Blasio and Lhota in a room with their mass transit experts and come up with a plan that will bring the MTA into a bright new affordable future.

Meanwhile, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle will host a panel of Urban Transportation comedic experts who will take part in the first Dread Talks at the Starr Bar at 214 Starr Street in Brooklyn starting at 7 p.m. on Thursday, September 6. We can’t guarantee it will solve the mass transit issue, but it should be fun.

 

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