Gotham Gazette

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To Tackle Covid and Climate Change, Invest in a Five-Borough MTA

mta disinfected covid

Governor Cuomo talks subways (photo: governor's office)

A city on the precipice of financial collapse. A federal government unwilling to provide help. Thousands of jobs and vital programs on the line. This was the situation in New York City in 1975, but this description is not far off from the picture in 2020.

Though the causes of these two crises were different, the effect will most likely be the same: massive budget cuts, especially to new projects. During the 1970s, the MTA was implementing plans to expand the subway system, including building the Second Avenue Subway, but scrapped them due to budget constraints. Fifty years later, the MTA is once again on the verge of collapse. But with the climate and economic crises escalating by the day, it’s imperative that politicians don’t make the same mistake this time.

As we’ve learned from previous downturns, cutting spending is counterproductive, as it only deepens recessions, leading to more job loss and thus more revenue loss. The MTA employs about 70,000 workers directly, and supports many more contracting jobs. According to the American Public Transportation Association, every dollar invested into transit yields about five dollars back.

It’s only fair that the wealthiest New Yorkers, the only people to actually experience financial gains during the pandemic, fund these investments upfront. Public transit is the lifeblood of this city’s economy, and those who benefit most from that economy ought to contribute to its well-being. Now is the time to tax the rich and expand transit service, not implement austerity on the MTA.

Mass transit is also vital to a Green New Deal. According to the Department of Transportation, public transportation releases anywhere from 33% to 76% less pollution per mile travelled than cars, with rail generating the most reductions. Transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, the highest of any sector of the economy. Clearly a Green New Deal must not only tackle electricity generation and buildings, but also investing in transit.

But equally important to how much we invest in public transportation is where we invest that money. While it’s easy to get about in Manhattan by walking and taking the subway, the same is not true of the other boroughs. Manhattan has 9.2 subway stations for every 100,000 people, compared to 6.5 in Brooklyn and 3.5 in Queens. In terms of area, Manhattan has 64 subway stations per ten square miles, compared to 23.9 in Brooklyn, 16.7 in the Bronx, and a meagre 7.4 in Queens. Consequently, in the city renowned for its public-transit culture, a staggering 43% of ‘outer-borough’ residents live over a quarter mile from the subway.

As a Queens student who (in the pre-remote days) took three buses to get to my high school in the same borough, I know firsthand that outer-borough residents desperately need more and better transit options.

This disparity is only getting worse. From 2009 to 2017, the rate of private-sector job growth in the outer boroughs was over 30% higherr than in Manhattan. A Manhattan-centric subway system might’ve made sense in the twentieth century, but today the city’s economy is shifting. Expanding subway lines in Manhattan should take a backseat to addressing the dearth of public transit options in the other boroughs.

Adequately funded public transportation is also a justice issue. Median pay for workers in the outer boroughs is about half of what it is in Manhattan, meaning workers in outer boroughs especially need access to affordable public transit. The outer boroughs are also home to the largest immigrant populations in the city, with Queens and Brooklyn being home to about a million immigrants each. Additionally, the outer boroughs are home to many of the city’s Black residents, especially the Bronx with a 43.6% Black population and Brooklyn at 33.8%. New Yorkers of color rely on public transit at higher rates than the city average, especially Black and Hispanic New Yorkers. Thus, a reallocation of transit investment towards these boroughs not only makes economic sense, but promotes social and racial equity.

There are a number of possible ways to increase transit options in the outer boroughs. One idea, put forward by the Regional Plan Association, is to convert a stretch of underused freight track into a “Triboro” line connecting Co-op City in the Bronx to Bay Ridge in Brooklyn, with a possible extension across the Narrows to connect it to Staten Island. This plan, which is currently under consideration by the MTA, would facilitate transfers to major subway and LIRR stations and largely eliminate the need to take the subway through Manhattan to get around in the other boroughs. A Brooklyn College student who lives in Jackson Heights, for example, would save over an hour a day on their commute.

Another option is to reduce the price of commuter rail within the city. The MTA’s existing Atlantic Ticket and City Ticket programs offer reduced fares (between $4 and $5 dollars) for certain LIRR and MetroNorth trips. Some, including several City Council members and Comptroller Scott Stringer, propose going even further, advocating for a so-called “Freedom Ticket” that would reduce the cost of all commuter-rail trips within city limits to the standard $2.75 fare. A 2018 report by Comptroller Stringer’s office found that 18 of the 38 LIRR stations in the city are in neighborhoods without subway access, meaning that this investment would greatly benefit nearby residents. This proposed fare parity, combined with planned commuter-rail expansions such as the Penn Station Access line in the eastern Bronx, would go a long way to improving mobility in the outer boroughs.

There are many more strategies to increase outer-borough public transit, and we shouldn’t be afraid to get creative. From converting Moses-era highways into light rail to turning boulevards or abandoned rights-of-way into exclusive busways – the possibilities are almost endless if we have the vision. And we shouldn’t limit ourselves to just repurposing existing rights-of-way; while building new infrastructure (e.g., tunnels, elevated lines) is harder, creating new and sustainable structures and providing an economic boost in the process – and increasing the subway system’s resilience against the inevitable increase in climate-driven natural disasters – would truly embody the spirit of the Green New Deal.

But what we absolutely should not do is repeat the mistakes of the 1970s and scale down spending on transit. Now is the perfect time for revitalizing the MTA with an economically and racially just Green New Deal, and to tax the rich to fund it.

Anil Amir Singh is a high-school student in Queens and an activist with Sunrise NYC.

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