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The Subway

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It’s amazing the New York subway system works at all.

But the fundamental reason the MTA is so hard to fix, say transit experts both inside and outside the authority, goes back to those antediluvian switches. The MTA runs one of the largest transit systems in the world on a budget that’s dependent on the whims of elected officials in City Hall and Albany. It’s the equivalent of trying to change the engine and tires on a 1930 Studebaker while driving cross-country at top speed and hoping you can find enough spare change between the seat cushions to buy parts.

“We’re trying to address three or four decades’ worth of disrepair and disinvestment,” says MTA planning director Bill Wheeler. “The last time people sunk money seriously into the subway system was before World War II. It’s taken us a long, long time to come back, and that’s why much of the capital program is about rebuilding.”

“New York started off behind a lot of other places, because most other places haven’t let their physical plant deteriorate to the extent that New York has,” agrees Richard Barone, director of transportation programs for the Regional Plan Association (RPA), one of the local groups that has pushed hardest for improved transit infrastructure. It’s a problem that started in the 1950s and 1960s, when local budgets got tight and subway service for a shrinking (and increasingly nonwhite) city populace no longer seemed like a priority.

“New York really just ignored investing in its infrastructure,” says Barone. “So it took decades to rebuild what we had lost because of neglect.” And while the MTA has spent more than $100 billion on improvements since its first capital plan in 1982 — almost every subway car has been replaced in that time, for starters — Barone says the agency remains in “catch-up” mode.

And of course there’s huge parts of the city the system does not touch. Yet it’s still reasonably reliable. In my limited experience, it seems more functional than that of Washington. I’ll find out more about that in the next few weeks as I’ll be in the nation’s capital for most of July researching a new project and enjoying that sweet, sweet DC weather.

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