Politics in the Subways: Great When It Works, a Mess When It Doesn’t

Politics in the Subways: Great When It Works, a Mess When It Doesn’t
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During a flood in the 1980s, when the subways were suffering from neglect, a nun waded along a ramp from the Times Square shuttle to the Lexington Avenue line. Credit Neal Boenzi/The New York Times

Things don’t always get worse.

In outlaw days, someone stole the steps to the elevated train station at Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn, and there were no plans to replace them until a photograph of a man shimmying up the banister ran on the front page of a newspaper. An arsonist burned the mezzanine of another el station, at Intervale Avenue in the Bronx, and it stayed closed for three years; officials did not want to rebuild it. The Franklin Avenue shuttle line in Brooklyn fell into such ruin that M.T.A. officials wanted to walk away from it. An influential figure with the Regional Plan Association, a research and advocacy group, urged closing 30 stations and shutting down entirely several lines in the Bronx.

All these episodes took place during the 1980s, when gangsters might as well have openly connived with establishment figures. Neglect, dressed up as responsible resource-allocation decisions, can be just as violent as a can of gasoline and a book of matches, if slower acting. Most immediately, the victims were people cut off from transportation: nurses’ aides, fabric cutters, doormen, shipping clerks, young students going off to school, sick people headed to their doctors. Had these shrinkage schemes not been foiled, they would have been acts of vandalism against the future. But people pushed back. Politicians howled. The transit authorities yielded. The total riderships in 2016 for Livonia in Brooklyn and Intervale in the Bronx were one million at each station.

Sometimes, politics works. Sometimes, what looks like pandering winds up being good civic hygiene.

On Thursday a new generation of thinkers and researchers with the Regional Plan Association published a new plan for the region, a serious work about transportation, housing and sustainability that weaves thorough analyses of problems with proposed solutions. It commands respectful attention, not awe. One of its ideas is to break up the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or at least farm out its work to new public bodies, in order to protect transit operations from changes in the political weather.

The current subway mess begins, it should be noted, with an epochal success by political figures. In 1979, with the transit system on the brink of collapse, Gov. Hugh L. Carey appointed a shrewd and well-liked builder, Richard Ravitch, to be chairman of the M.T.A. Mr. Ravitch insisted that everyone — in government, and in the general public — see that the infrastructure was made of parts that had to be replaced before they failed, not after. Since then, the public has invested more than $100 billion. Ridership has doubled. New York has boomed.

Even over the last two years, with a slight decrease in the number of passengers, the city remains close to peak subway ridership. During busy times, half of the city’s 20 main lines have room for neither more trains nor riders. Five other lines have no room for more trains. A 10-minute delay for a sick passenger at rush hour can hold up 72 trains, about 144,000 people. Crowding is a force multiplier.

Ridership is not much different today than a decade ago, but the system was in better shape then. Why? Too much maintenance was cut after the 2008 fiscal crisis and not restored when the economy recovered because, in the meantime, transit debt ballooned, with pension costs also rising. And the debt climbed because it was convenient for vanished governors, legislators and mayors to borrow money for transit infrastructure, rather than annoy people by raising taxes or fares. So they punted the ball into the future, and it landed around 2012. The people running the system did not have enough money to keep current with repairs, serve the swarms of riders, and pay the debt. So they paid the debt, as required by law. The past was vandalizing the present. Now a frantic maintenance and repair catch-up effort is underway.

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