Tunnel Vision

New Yorkers Got Drunk and Tried to Solve the Subway Problem

"Tried" being the key word here.

by John Surico
Sep 22 2017, 4:00am

Illustration by Theresa Chromati

In early 2019, the L train in New York City will shut down for 15 months to repair damage caused during Hurricane Sandy. Leading up to the closure, VICE will be providing relevant updates and policy proposals, as well as profiles of community members and businesses along the affected route in a series we're calling Tunnel Vision. Read more about the project here.

The problems surrounding New York's subway can feel insurmountable: nearly $20 billion in deferred maintenance, which is just what the system needs to return to a state of good repair; a signal system—some say the root of all subway evils—that largely dates back to the 1930s; old subway cars, some of which made their debut at the 1964 World's Fair; and much-needed fixes that will take entire parts of the network offline for months on end (read: the dreaded L train shutdown, and a litany of mini-shutdowns). All of this amidst the need for expansion as the city's population continues to skyrocket.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) says it can get to work fixing the core issues, but there's one catch: it needs money. A lot of it. And who's going to pay for it has ignited a transit civil war of sorts in New York, namely between the camps of Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo, and their opposing solutions: de Blasio's tax on the city's millionaires versus Cuomo's system for charging drivers to enter certain parts of the city, better known as congestion pricing.

But what would actually work? And how long will it take?

New Yorkers came together to gripe over these questions at a bar in Manhattan's East Village late last week, with a happy hour conversation organized by Riders Alliance, a grassroots transit advocacy group. Its executive director, John Raskin, had three experts on hand to weigh in: Veronica Vanterpool, an MTA board member; Jamison Dague, the director of infrastructure studies at Citizen Budgets Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan watchdog group; and Dmitry Dement, a Riders Alliance member and daily subway rider.

Dement first explained how awful the day-to-day realities of riding the subway have become—something everyone with a drink could relate to. "I believe the MTA has said that, in 2017, the average number of delays in a given month is 70,000. Compare that to five years ago, in 2012, when it was 28,000," Dement explained. "In 2010, you saw the number of miles that the average train traveled before breaking down was about 200,000. In 2017, that number is down to about 140,000." (Ironically, the subway system was at a standstill that night, too.)

The story of the system's decline, Vanterpool said, is a history lesson in underinvestment (which VICE has explored in great detail). "Mostly from the 1930s, we have a transit network that was basically built on a credit card," she told everyone. "And what we see today is the outcome of now going about $33 billion in debt." It was politically easy, she added, for politicians to keep delaying payment on maintenance—a problem not just with infrastructure in New York, but nationwide.

That has changed slightly with Governor Cuomo, whose national ambitions, critics argue, are encouraging him to have a more active role in addressing New York City's crumbling underground. As governor, Cuomo appoints the chair of the MTA and seven board members, while the mayor has four nominees on the board. However, the panelists noted that Cuomo has focused more on expansion—which, they admitted, was needed as well—than maintenance.

While Vanterpool supported MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota's immediate "Subway Action Plan," Dague said the agency must think long-term, with system-wide overhauls that, although a pain in the ass for commuters, are crucial. Installing a modern signal system on just two lines—the L and 7—was costly yet beneficial, he said, but those were the easiest, as they, unlike most lines, do not share tracks with other subways.

"It's only going to get more complicated, from a procurement and implementation standpoint. But it's extremely valuable to the system, and it's something that the MTA really wants to accelerate," Dague said. "That may mean bringing a whole line offline." The L train shutdown, he added, will be the best case study in how this could work thus far.

By the looks of it at this bar, the commuters already knew what the problems were, what was causing them, and what was needed to fix them. What they really wanted to know was simple: who's going to do it?

"At CBC, we like to think that there are three types of people that pay for the transit system. There's us: those that use it every day, through fares. You have general taxpayers," Dague explained. "The third source is processing from motor vehicle users. There are subsidies that come from the surplus at bridges and tunnels, from the MTA, and other types of motor vehicle fees that we don't normally think of offhand, like the gas tax, taxicab fee, and autorental tax."

"We found that motor vehicle users are really under-asked when it comes to mass transportation funding," he continued.

Although details have yet to be revealed, Cuomo's congestion pricing plan would, essentially, charge drivers more for coming into the busiest parts of the city during peak hours. The idea is that a number of cars are dutifully allowed to clog our streets, with no daily cost to them at all, as anyone can enter Manhattan via four free bridges. At a recent city council meeting proponents of the plan, entitled "MoveNY," called for a $2.75 toll—the same as a subway swipe—on those bridges, and lowered tolls on other overpasses. (A spokesperson for MoveNY who contacted VICE after publication said the most recent proposal is "harmonizing all CBD [central business district] tolls (except the two Port Authority Hudson River tunnels) at $5.76/$8.50, or whatever the QMT [Queens-Midtown Tunnel] and BBT [Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel] tolls are at the time the plan is put into effect.") It promises billions of dollars in new spending for the city and state.

Mayor de Blasio, for his part, has called the plan "inconceivable," arguing that it would adversely affect those who live in the outer-boroughs and rely on those free entryways for their livelihoods.

Earlier this week, Vanterpool wrote an op-ed in The New York Daily News urging de Blasio to adopt congestion pricing, which is significant, because Vanterpool, the outgoing executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, was appointed by him. But at the talk days before, she came out in support of the millionaire's tax, too.

"We should pay in every way that does not unduly and unfairly burden the transit user," she argued. "What do I mean by that? Transit users are the only ones who are always on the hook and meet their obligations to pay into the system. How? Through fare increases."

With some experts estimating a price tag of over $100 billion, one could argue that the city really needs as many dedicated revenue streams as it can get. So, in order for the system to simultaneously expand, modernize, and maintain itself, maybe we need to do both: tax the millionaires of New York City and charge drivers for coming in.

With elections coming up for both de Blasio and Cuomo, the panelists urged those in attendance to advocate for a subway system that wasn't shitty—to which New Yorkers, who are familiar with high taxes and rents, were happy to cheer on.

"Transit is not really an issue that our candidates run on, and that has to change," Vanterpool said. "Education is important. Crime. Healthcare. Immigration. But transportation feeds and intersects with all of those issues. It's also really important."

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This article has been updated to include the latest information on toll increases provided by MoveNY.