Forget the $1 Million Prize, Here’s How to Fix the NYC Subway for Free

Delays expected (huffingtonpost)

Delays expected (huffingtonpost)

The A Train derailed last week, injuring 25 passengers.  This incident is just the latest problem facing the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) during the “Summer of Hell” for transit commuters.  As the subways deteriorate before our eyes, the agency, and Governor Cuomo (who runs it), are under immense pressure to provide relief. 

As a result, on Thursday, the Governor declared a state of emergency for the system.  Additionally, he created a $1 million “genius challenge” in three categories to improve the system.  The three categories are: “Modernize Signal Technology,” “Deploy New Cars Faster,” and “Increase Communications.”

I see the value of the first two more than the last (Gov. Cuomo seems to be an unhappy victim of greater Wi-Fi access for riders already) but the challenge falls comically short of addressing the structural challenges facing the MTA: overcrowding, maintenance, and waste. The only real solution to these problems is fixing the politics around the MTA – but there doesn’t seem to be a category for that.


In a basic sense, the strain on the subway is a sign of its success.  NYC has grown by over half a million people over the last 20 years and there are now over 6 million daily riders on the system, up from 3.6 million during the same period.   Tourism has also grown considerably during this period from 22 million in the early 90s to over 60 million today (although its dipped). People want to live and work and visit NYC in record numbers, which is great, obviously.

Growth in riders hasn’t been matched with additional capacity, which isn’t great.  In 1990, there were 5,255 subway cars for 1 billion annual riders. Today there are 5,282 subway cars for 1.8 billion riders.  This causes delays as people get on and off trains, which backs up the entire system (overcrowding accounts for the biggest reason for delays.)

Some of the increase in subway rides is at the expense of the bus system, which has seen a significant decline in ridership recently.  How much is caused by ride-share apps like Uber and Lyft is a matter of debate (do more cars on the road harm bus service enough to have people skip it?) but addressing this is a major under-discussed issue as well.

For a system that is over 100 years old in parts, handling that capacity at all is a stunning achievement, though it is clearly at its breaking point. But you can’t fix overcrowding until you fix how the system is maintained.


The NYC subway system is really old.  Infamously, many of the signals that monitor where individual trains are on various lines (which controls their frequency) date back to the 1930s and have ceased to be available on the market.  This means that MTA workers must rely on small-scale ingenuity to keep the system working.  It would be difficult enough to do this work without the additional ridership. But there is no helping overcrowding without adding more trains, and they can’t add more trains without better signals.

It’s been fairly obviously that the system needs new signals for a number of decades, but over that period, particularly during the fiscal crisis in the late 1970s, the system had bigger challenges.  And when the city rebounded, political focus turned to adding new lines like the 2nd Avenue Subway.   

Superstorm Sandy compounded this issue when it did considerable damage to the subway system five years ago. Since then, the recovery has eaten up a lot of capacity for maintenance, setting back a number of initiatives.  It’s partly why the L Train will be shut down for at least 18 months starting in 2019. But you can’t improve maintenance, or the MTA’s credibility on it, without improving the culture of waste in the MTA.


People that rely on the L Train (including this writer) are understandably freaking out about losing the entire line, not least because the MTA has very little credibility with commuters.  Everything the MTA does costs way more and takes way longer than they estimate. 

The 7 Train Extension cost $2.1 billion and took an extra 2 years (and was only close to budget by dropping a planned second station on 10th Ave).  The three stops on the 2nd Avenue Subway cost $4.5 billion (an overrun of $700 million) and took an extra 3 years (or 70 depending on your perspective.)

It’s impossible to look at the MTA and not see considerable waste.  Some of this seems to be a blood feud between the operational and capital sides of the agency.  Some of it is the complexity of doing business in NYC.  But a lot of it is simply poor planning and execution resulting in a flabby operation.

I’m not blaming the labor union here, either.  Many criticize the salaries of MTA workers, their healthy benefits, and their pensions.  Certainly there were some bad contracts negotiated over the years that have given rise to some egregious behavior, but providing living wages and reasonable benefits should be a basic standard in all employment.  You can absolutely improve some of the marginal human costs, but the larger principle matters here.

Politics is the Problem and the Solution

All of these issues come back to the central problem that must be fixed.  Poor leadership with poor accountability explain why an agency that has an operating budget of $15 billion and a 5-year capital plan of $32 billion (half for the subway) still can’t address these three issues. 

Notice I haven’t listed money as a problem. It isn’t with the MTA. They have had access to funding through direct state subsidies, in-system revenues, or the bond market, and aren’t strapped for cash.

The issue is the structure of the MTA and how it tries to do too many things with too many people having small pieces of it.  Since it was formally created in 1968, the MTA has run the subway, the buses, bridges and tunnels, the LIRR, Metro-North, and Penn Station.  Though most of their operational portfolio involves transit, it’s easy to see how such a wide range of sub-units and constituencies makes it difficult to focus on the subway even though it’s the largest entity by far (72% of all subway rides in the US are in NYC and half of the MTA’s budget.)

The Board of the MTA consists of 9 members, 5 of which are appointed by the governor giving him/her de facto control over the MTA.  This is why Governor Cuomo has been roundly mocked for pretending not to be in charge of the MTA.

Living in a democracy, we must accept a certain imperfection in our systems.  Politics are always going to be messy and frustrating.  However, the structure of the MTA leaves the politics of transportation in the metropolitan New York area fatally flawed.

Challenge #4: How to Fix the MTA

Some have argued to return the control of the subway and bus systems to the city and I would love to see that (and more home-rule in general) but that’s not going to happen.  Partly because no Governor would voluntarily surrender that amount of power, partly because the level of debt within the MTA makes it hard to see how you could restructure that with independent agents (or how an independent subway/bus system could borrow at the same rates on its own.  Admittedly I don’t have much background on this.)

Mostly though, we need to have a regional approach to transportation. We need to tax cars and trucks for using our bridges, tunnels, and streets to subsidize public transit.  We need to further tax rider-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft beyond just the regular 8% sales tax to subsidize public transit.  We need to charge congestion pricing for our busiest streets.  We need to incorporate NJT and the PATH to the greater NYC system. We certainly can’t do this if we Balkinize the subways and buses. 

I propose creating a Metropolitan Transportation Authority that has dominion over the roads, rails, bridges, and tunnels of the metropolitan area spanning NYC, northern NJ, LI, Westchester/Rockland, and the Metro-North commuter shed.  This agency would have a board appointee from each state’s governor and two from the Mayor of NYC.

Every form of transportation, every type of commute impacts the other.  Every commuter in the metropolitan sphere would be supporting the system whether they drive or ride.  The only way to organize this is to stop fragmenting it around artificial state-lines and even more artificial political lines. 

I don't know what optics the Governor is looking for with this challenge, but presumably enough to declare victory as he leads up to his re-election.  Just as Governor Christie in NJ failed commuters and citizens of NJ by canceling ARC in 2010, Governor Cuomo risks his legacy by neglecting transit and by failing to think bigger in a time of crisis.  Without a larger, regional effort that radically shifts the focus of transportation policy, the summer of hell will turn into a permanent hell.  It doesn't take a genius to fix it, it takes someone with courage.