Are We Really On the Move?

By Gene Russianoff

For many New Yorkers, recent promises that new transit lines are finally on the way seem as believable as subway announcements that "there is a train right behind this one."

It's hard even to keep track of all the plans and proposals. To name just a few:

  • Mayor Giuliani advocates extending the 7 line to Manhattan's far west side.
  • The Port Authority has projects in progress to provide direct rail access to Newark and JFK International Airports, the so-called AirTrain, while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority has set aside $645 million to do the same thing for LaGuardia.
  • The MTA also plans the "East Side Access Project," connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal by the year 2009, which would allow 62,000 daily suburban commuters to travel directly to Manhattan's East Side rather than circle back from Penn Station.
  • The Regional Plan Association has a grand vision of a "MetroLink" of new routes in four boroughs. And central to that vision, the spine of all these routes, would be a new Second Avenue Subway, stretching from the Financial District to East Harlem. [See Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week from last September on the Second Avenue Subway , which includes arguments for and against.]
  • This Second Avenue Subway-the most needed (and most expensive) transit improvement of them all-is itself a priority of the MTA, after sharp prodding by State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (See State Assembly report "New York City Transit Needs").

All this activity surely leaves some New Yorkers unmoved. As informed skeptics could point out, a Second Avenue Subway has been promised twice before - in the 1950's and the 1970's. The earlier effort was abandoned because the money was needed to repair the system and keep it running; the later effort faltered during the fiscal crisis, leaving behind three small segments of tunnel as either mocking souvenirs or tokens of the future, depending on your outlook.

Indeed, it has been 60 years since any new subway line has opened in the city.

LONDON AHEAD OF US, THEN AND NOW

New York has always been a tough town for transit builders.

More than a century ago, local leaders bickered for decades, allowing the city's commuters to suffer the dangers of runaway trolleys and horse-filled streets, while competitors like London and Boston opened subway lines with dispatch.

Why the hold-up? Business leaders feared taxes would go up if public dollars paid for transit lines; but the costs of construction were so great the private sector couldn't handle it.

It took a public vote in an 1894 city referendum to force action, following years of intolerable commuting. Egging the process on were transit advocates ike Jacob Riis, settlement house workers, the construction trades, the city's Chamber of Commerce, and leaders of the African-American community like W.E.B. DuBois. The goal of this diverse coalition were subway lines to move the masses from Lower Manhattan, get them to better housing and jobs, and allow the city to expand.

To a remarkable extent, their vision for New York came true. Transit does move millions. But, in many ways today's transit advocates face a similar scene. Once again, we are falling behind our global rivals. Paris has just opened a high-tech "Meteor Line" through its core; and London is extending its new Jubilee line for access to new jobs. The story is the same in Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore.

And once again, New York faces the challenges of raising enormous sums of money if it wants more and better transit. Overall, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority says it needs a minimum of $20 billion over the next 20 years for system expansion projects. That's on top of an ambition-crushing $57 billion just to fix and maintain the existing system between now and 2020.

THE GLASS IS 1/14TH FULL, AND BILLIONS EMPTY

This spring, our state legislature approved a five-year, $18.1 billion transit rebuilding program for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. [See Gotham Gazette Issue of the Week from January on the MTA Budget].

So, does that mean we are finally on our way?

It would be easy to be pessimistic.

For one thing, only $3 billion of that is intended for system expansion projects. The other $15 billion is slated for thousands of new subway trains, commuter rail cars and buses; replacing ancient signals and worn out tracks; modernizing scores of stations and repairing the transit infrastructure.

And then, some of the money is just for "study." For example, it includes $68 million to review the mayor's proposal to extend the number 7 train, along with a direct suburban commuter rail to the Financial District.

Some projects face major hurdles that are not connected to money, like community opposition to possible rail approaches to LaGuardia.

But most of the cause for doubt is financial. Even the best-funded of the proposals, the LIRR-Grand Central Terminal link, will receive a little more than one-third of its funding over the next five years. And there's a massive gap in funding for the Second Avenue Subway. The MTA's five-year capital program includes just seven percent of the total cost of construction, which experts say could run between $9 and $15 billion. The MTA isn't even ready to give an official estimate for completing a Second Avenue Subway - even though, in a rational world, the LIRR-Grand Central link and a Second Avenue Subway would be built in tandem, as the LIRR link would otherwise add thousands to the already jam-packed Lexington line.

Optimists, like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, prefer to see the glass as one-fourteenth full, not thirteen-fourteenths empty. The billion dollars slated for the Second Avenue Subway is a serious start, he says; the remainder of the money will be found over the course of the MTA's next two five-year capital plans.

At Silver's urging, the legislature is asking voters to approve a $3.8 billion bond issue this November, with half the proceeds slated for statewide transit needs, including $1.6 billion for the MTA. The other half would go to highway needs.

A SUBWAY FARE HIKE OF 39 CENTS?

Speaker Silver is not alone in hoping for the best. As the New York Times editorialized on May 4th: "The MTA is taking a calculated risk that by putting forward an ambitious and much needed plan it will generate sufficient pressure on city and state elected leaders to ensure its financing. The MTA is right to proceed with its plan and enlist government leaders on all levels to battle for full financing."

But just how far we still have to go is illustrated by the MTA's risky schemes for financing. Its plans could trigger massive fare hikes in the coming years - some 39 cents according to the Citizens Budget Commission.

That's because the MTA's plan relies heavily on billions in bonding without identifying ways of repaying the borrowing. By 2010, interest payments on this mountain of debt will eat up a quarter of all its revenues; more than $1.6 billion dollars a year will have to be found just to pay back the bonds. That's up from $692 million annually in 1998. And that's without considering how to finance the 2005-2010 transit capital program.

State Comptroller Carl McCall blames the MTA's increased need for debt on the large decrease of support for the project from both the state and city governments. As McCall notes: "The City intends to contribute $106 million annually, the same amount it has contributed since 1986, despite the impact of inflation." (NYS Comptroller, under New York City reports)

Despite these daunting challenges, I believe there's reason for hope.

My optimism lies in the strong support shown for transit during the legislative debate on the MTA plan.

History did repeat itself: Once again, a diverse coalition pressed vigorously for transit, walking the corridors of Albany, putting up ads in the subways and creating a web site designed to enlist support from regular riders. Among the fighters: the city's business leadership--including Lou Rudin of the Association for a Better New York, Robert Kiley and the New York City Partnership, the General Contractors Association and the Building Congress--and civic, labor and environmental groups, such as the Regional Plan Association, the Transport Workers Union, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. During the battle, thousands of riders also contacted Governor Pataki and state legislative leaders.

The challenge ahead for these groups and riders is clear: They must convince city and state leaders to put real money where their rhetoric is about new transit lines.

Gene Russianoffr is the senior attorney of the New York Public Interest Research Group's Straphangers Campaign, a transit advocacy group

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