Short-sighted overspending has contributed to an infrastructure crisis in NYC.

Suraj Patel
Mar 27, 2018 · 13 min read
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(Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash)

Any frequent rider of the subways, busses, and roads in this City knows that we have an infrastructure problem stemming for decades of underinvestment and overspending. Too often, politicians waste precious resources for the opportunity to do ribbon cuttings in front of grand projects rather than investing in the long term. That ends now.

Since 2010, New York City has added 520,000 jobs 520,000 jobs, 370,000 residents, and has seen 10 million more tourists. As of 2016, there were 159 million more annual subway trips than in 2010, and 200,000 more daily cycling trips. Despite this growth, the city’s infrastructure has not adjusted to accommodate the needs of the people of NYC.

There are more than 50,000 weekday train delays every month, and average car speed is down to eight miles per hour in Manhattan — and even slower during rush hour. Bus speed has dropped to 5.5 miles per hour in Manhattan, 6.3 miles per hour in Brooklyn, and 8.1 miles per hour in Queens, while bus ridership has also decreased by 46 million annual trips since 2010. Declining bus service is most detrimental to lower-income and foreign-born New Yorkers: 55% of bus commuters are foreign born and 75% are people of color.

On the roads, traffic congestion in our city has increased by 53% since 2006, and costs New Yorkers $20 billion annually, with those who work in Manhattan and Queens being most affected. Moreover, a significant number of our city’s bridges are rated at the low end of “fair,” according to the Independent Budget Office, and will need to be rehabilitated in the near future. 14% of bridges in Brooklyn, 13% in Manhattan, and 9% in Queens are labeled “structurally deficient” as of 2014.

Even when we do spend on new infrastructure projects, so much money is wasted that there is little appetite for future projects. The much-awaited construction of the Second Avenue Subway has spiraled into the most expensive subway project in human history, with the first three stations costing a mind-bending $1.7 billion per kilometer. Phase Two of the Second Avenue Subway will be even more expensive at $2.2 billion per kilometer. Other major world cities have built subways for far less, with Berlin’s U55 line costing $250 million per kilometer, Paris’s Metro Line 14 costing $230 million per kilometer, and Copenhagen’s Circle Line costing $260 million per kilometer.

Advocates for public transit have an obligation to ensure that major projects are executed efficiently and at reasonable cost, instead of imposing long-term closures or billion-dollar overages on New Yorkers.

New York’s crumbling infrastructure and mass transit is the fault of politicians who have failed to engage in long-term planning, cost-control measures, and sensible investment despite having the opportunity to do so. Any politician who holds office for two decades has the responsibility to build for the future, but instead our current incumbents have manufactured a full-blown mass transit crisis in New York City.

Our long-term political class has failed to meet its obligation to our city, and is unable to offer or execute on a long-term vision for transit and infrastructure in New York. The dramatic failure at the MTA and the deteriorating quality of our roads is a fatal indictment of their inability to lead, plan, and deliver for our city.

Now isn’t the time to tinker with small changes or reallocate precious resources without dramatic reform and a change in leadership that has failed New York for too long.

Below are some of my specific proposals and ideas for bold leadership in reinventing our City’s vital infrastructure:

  1. Immediate MTA reform is necessary to save our city from rapidly deteriorating public transport.

As of 2017, New York City’s transit system is the most expensive in the United States, but is only ranked fifth in efficiency.

New York City, one of the largest cities in the world, is distinctly equipped with a 24/7 transit system. Unfortunately, this distinction means that maintenance and updates often move slowly, and contribute to delays when running trains need to maneuver through construction sites. We need to ensure safe, reliable, and efficient transportation for the people of this city.

Nothing better encapsulates the MTA’s failure to plan ahead and adequately maintain infrastructure than the L train closure, which will dramatically disrupt transit for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers. The Canarsie Tunnel is over a century old and should have been an MTA maintenance priority earlier than Hurricane Sandy, but our political leadership has been totally unable to plan for the future. Now, the failure of these politicians to invest in our city is hurting ordinary New Yorkers, including some of the fastest-growing and most dynamic neighborhoods in the city.

The MTA’s proposed solution to the L train closure is to deploy 200 buses along new routes across Williamsburg and lower Manhattan, forcing working and middle-class neighborhoods to bear the brunt of the MTA’s failures. The congestion, noise, and air pollution that accompanies the 200 new diesel buses will punish residents by significantly reducing quality of life, and clogging major transit arteries in both Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Mitigating the L train closure must take into account the wellbeing of the residents whose lives are already being heavily disrupted, instead of further contributing to their discomfort. Our elected officials must take steps to identify and prevent the next potential L train disaster.

Putting full-blown meltdowns like the L train aside, subway delays are increasing in frequency. During the August 2017 work week alone there were 66,295 subway delays , 46,295 more than the 2012 average. Three-quarters of the subway’s lines were chronically behind schedule during the first three months of 2017. Average train speeds are now slower than they were in 1950.

Delays are estimated to cost New Yorkers roughly $864,000 per day in lost work time. The 4, 5, A, and F lines lead in number of delays, with delays on the A and F lines causing a loss of roughly 5,300 work hours in an average week. The 4, 5, and F trains service a large portion of District 12, from Astoria to the Lower East Side.

The source of delays is a contentious issue: the MTA largely ignores the role endless construction, emergency response, and poor maintenance play in delays, choosing instead to blame delays on overcrowding. While overcrowding is undoubtedly a problem (accounting for 40% of delays in 2017), it should be seen as evidence of a failing system, not the cause of it. We need a reliable system that is able to serve every New Yorker who needs to use it.

In 2017, the MTA launched a 6 point plan aimed at fixing many issues of the subway system. The plan includes: restructuring the MTA by separating the CEO and Chairman positions, improving the track and signals, ensuring faster access to EMTs and Police, streamlining passenger loading and unloading, troubleshooting bottlenecks, revamping maintenance procedures and adding 300 new subway cars by fall 2018 . The effects of this plan remains to be seen.

58% of low-income New Yorkers rely on public transportation, but 1 in 4 cannot afford a Metrocard. The Fair Fares Initiative would create a third subsidized fare category for New Yorkers living at or below the poverty line. Students and seniors already receive these half-price fares. Funding for this program was originally proposed to come from the state, but that requires approval from the state legislature. To move this initiative forward, proponents are asking De Blasio to include $200 million in the next city budget to sufficiently cover the fares needed for the 800,000 eligible New Yorkers. However, De Blasio plans to fund this is by adding an additional tax on wealthier New Yorkers.

Though legally the MTA is an independent corporation, the members of the MTA Board are largely unable to act independently because the MTA relies on the state and city for funding. Of the 23 board members, 6 are recommended by the Governor, 4 by the Mayor, 7 by County Executives, 3 non-voting members by various commuter councils, and 3 non-voting members by unions. Members recommended by the Executives of Orange, Dutchess, Putnam, and Rockland County cast one vote collectively.

These Directors are gridlocked in a budget battle waged between New York City and New York State, with neither side willing to shoulder the cost or responsibility required to effectively operate the MTA. This long-running budget impasse has caused deteriorating service and disastrous infrastructure failures. To patch its budget hole, the MTA applies for federal grants, but has no consistent funding from federal sources in order to keep the country’s biggest city moving.

We propose radical reform that includes federal operating funds and reorganization of the MTA Board to include directly accountable federal representatives. We will ease budget pressures and improve functionality by Introducing the federal government as a mediator between City and State and as a consistent third funding source for the MTA operating budget and capital plan. New York City sends $56.1 billion more to Washington than comes back to our city. It’s time for the federal government to directly support the drivers of that revenue, especially the MTA.

2. Routes through the New York Metro area are a national, not local, concern.

Over 2,000 Amtrak trains carry roughly 800,000 passengers along the Northeast Corridor, between Washington DC and Boston, daily. This transit link adds $50 billion to national GDP annually. Delays have become commonplace on this route, with the Acela Express delayed 25% of the time and the Northeast Regional running delayed 23% of the time. In addition to long wait times at Penn Station, commuters face the frightening possibility of train derailments. Between March and August of 2017, four trains derailed at Penn Station alone, resulting in numerous injuries. The number of daily trains in and out of Penn Station has increased by 90% in the last 35 years, however, little has been done to accommodate this change.

The Gateway Program was initiated to facilitate desperately needed rail infrastructure projects along the Northeast Corridor as it runs from Newark, New Jersey to Penn Station in Midtown. The program plans to update and replace antiquated infrastructure, while increasing the system’s capacity in this 10-mile segment. Part of this overhaul is the conversion of the James A. Farley Post Office building into the Moynihan Train Hall at a cost of $1.6 billion and the addition of the Penn Station South Annex, which would add 7 new tracks and 4 new platforms.

Another portion of this plan includes the Hudson Tunnel Project. The project calls for the creation of a new rail tunnel connecting NJ and NY beneath the Hudson, as well as refurbishment of the existing North River Tunnel. Damage from Hurricane Sandy causes frequent closure due to increased maintenance, increasing the urgency of this construction project. If the new Gateway Tunnel is not built, the North River Tunnel will need to shut down one track at a time to complete repairs, causing a 63% reduction in service. The impact of this closure on New York and the entire Northeast would be immense and costly.

The cost of the Gateway Program is estimated to be $20 billion, and funding has been uncertain since its inception. Half of the project funding was secured under the Obama administration, but that promise is now in jeopardy. The Trump administration views the Gateway Program as a local project, signaling that the states cannot rely on the federal government for this program. Funding for these projects was not included in Trump’s recent $1.5 trillion infrastructure plan.

This is not a state issue, it is a federal issue. The Corridor connects eight states, and the tracks transport 8.5 million people per year. The maintenance of this line is important to the national GDP, and should be treated by the federal government as such.

Closely linked to the Gateway problems is the ongoing problems at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which builds, operates, and maintains airports, railways, buses, ports, bridges, and tunnels in the greater New York City area. At its inception, the Port Authority was highly successful at creating much-needed infrastructure to turn the New York Metro into a thriving hub of commerce. Yet in recent years, due to poor planning and maintenance it has failed to continue its economic success, and verged into crisis during the Bridgegate scandal. This is due to the highly politicized decision-making and leadership-appointing processes in the Port Authority which has prevented the progress of much-needed projects. Insufficient finances has caused the Port Authority to become increasingly dependent on state and federal funding, further opening the door to political interference. The Port Authority desperately needs reform that will restore financial self-sufficiency, and provide better, fairer governance.

3. New York needs greater accessibility and more innovative transportation alternatives.

New York City’s bike share program, Citi Bike, has been successful since its implementation in 2013, averaging 38,491 daily rides 2015. Citi BIke use is expected to continue to increase. Bike sharing cuts down on road wear and repair, reduces emissions, collisions, and traffic congestion, and improves public health. The city has done a good job of creating designated bike lanes in all boroughs but Staten Island, however, there must be a focus on creating more protected bike lanes and safer intersections: the most hazardous feature for city cyclists. Numerous safe bike lanes are correlated with increased retail sales and property value and decreased retail vacancies.

Midtown Citi Bike trips of less than 1 mile are at least 2 miles per hour faster, 2–3 minutes shorter, and $6 cheaper than taking a taxi, while trips of 1–1.5 miles are 5 minutes faster and $11.75 cheaper than a taxi trip.

Citi Bike is markedly cheaper than a Metrocard, with annual passes costing only $163, or $14.95 per month. Citi Bike, however, currently only accepts credit cards at their stalls, favoring wealthier participants and prohibiting many New Yorkers from usage. Much like the AirTrain at JFK, Citi Bike can work with the MTA to enable easy and streamlined purchase of Citi Bike use by accepting metrocards for payment.

The Citi Bike program is unique in the United States because it receives no public funding. Because of this, Citi Bike has neglected lower-income and farther-flung neighborhoods, choosing to focus on wealthier and more gentrified neighborhoods. Multiple city council members have spoken up in support for partial public funding of the rideshare program, This would enable more bikes to be placed in neglected neighborhoods. These neighborhoods tend to be underserved by city bike lanes, and suffer higher than average cyclist fatalities as result. The provision of bikes must align with the number and quality of bike lanes to ensure cyclist safety.

Rather than competing with public transportation, Citi Bikes complement our strained transit system, contributing to a greener, healthier, more innovative city.

New York City is in great need of accessibility updates to make the city welcoming to residents and tourists with mobility issues and disabilities. This city has fallen woefully behind in ensuring the basic right of mobility to all its people. Only 20% of subway station have elevators, compared with 100% in Washington, D.C., and 70% in Chicago (which has plans to increase to 100%). Due to the age of the NY subway system, the cost of installing elevators can be prohibitive, but it is the simplest way to ensure ease of transport for individuals with disabilities.

Access-A-Ride is a MTA-run paratransit service that provides transportation between points on subway routes. While helpful, it’s tedious and unreliable, often running behind schedule and requiring users to schedule rides 24 to 48 hours in advance. This is not conducive to individuals who need flexibility in work hours, or are living a normal life that is not meticulously scheduled.

While every single bus in NYC is able to accommodate riders with wheelchairs, the reality of bus service is often not reflective of this ability. Drivers aren’t always able or willing to lower the ramp, or don’t completely pull up to the curb in order to allow wheelchair accessibility. Additionally, if buses are crowded, individuals with disabilities may have to wait for multiple buses to pass before they can board one.

A mere 4% of yellow taxis are currently accessible, though this number is slated to be at 50% by 2020. Regardless of this increase , this number still falls unacceptably short of the 100% of London cabs that have been accessible since 1989! The increase of rideshare services has decreased number of taxis, further preventing the growth of an accessible fleet. Unlike yellow taxis, rideshare services like Uber and Lyft are under no obligation to offer services for disabled.

Even getting around on sidewalks is a challenge to those with mobility issues. A 2015 study found that 75% of curb cuts in Manhattan south of 14th street are not safely constructed for wheelchair use. Additionally, a 2013 study found that 40% of polling sites at public schools are inaccessible. New York City’s failings to address accessibility issues has deprived its citizens of not only freedom of movement but also of a voice in our city and nation’s politics.

4. We need federal solutions to fix crumbling infrastructure across the country.

In the American Society of Civil Engineer’s 2017 Infrastructure Report Card, the United States scored a D+. Another 2017 report listed New York City’s infrastructure as only 44th in the world and 4th in the United States. The infrastructure of our nation and city is in need of a great deal of investment, but our current federal representatives have been unable to secure .

The most recent legislation, the BRIDGE Act (S. 1168, not to be confused with the deportation relief act of the same name), is a bipartisan bill that would create a National Infrastructure Bank to help solve the infrastructure deficit. The Bank would provide loans and loan guarantees to help finance economically viable infrastructure projects. The BRIDGE Act would “mobilize significant private sector investment, create long-term jobs, and ensure United States competitiveness through a self-sustaining institution that limits the need for ongoing Federal funding.” Despite support during the Clinton and Obama presidencies, Congress has yet to take the necessary action to resolve this deficit.

With a one-time seed funding of $10 billion, the bank would assist state and local governments in leveraging private funds to invest in infrastructure. Transit, rail, airport, marine port, energy, and water projects, as well as environmental and telecommunications programs would be eligible for NIB financing. Beyond the seed funding, the Bank would need no other federal financing and would be self-sustaining.

Until we change who votes, it’s unlikely we’ll see any changes to the systems that currently fail New Yorkers on a daily basis. There are few downsides to prioritizing long-term infrastructure solutions in America.

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