What's Wrong with the MTA?

Fretfully waiting at the platform for the red signal to turn green, and squeezing yourself into the inbound train in any way possible is an everyday occurrence for the city’s subway riders. If you’re able to steal the coveted side seat and take a quick snooze, you’re probably the happiest person on Earth. But that glee soon turns to gloom when you hear the dreaded, all-too familiar announcement: “Ladies and gentleman, we are delayed because of train traffic ahead of us. We apologize for any inconvenience”. The conductor’s dispatch doesn’t automatically rile the riders, most of whom are sleeping or focused on their newest Netflix download. Once 15 minutes pass, there are some light murmurs and airs of frustrations. At 30 minutes, no one stops themselves from cursing the MTA, its inefficiencies and unreliability.

The above chain of events is not rare by any means. We’ve all experienced exorbitant wait times accompanied by an insurmountable feeling of defeat.

Subway delays have affected many New Yorkers in very dire ways. Residents have lost jobs because they could not make it to work on time. The accumulation of personal losses and inconveniences have led to major financial losses for the metropolis. In May of 2017, there were 67,450 delays, a 237.25% increase from the total number of delays in 2012. Annually, delays also incur a total loss of $307 million in work time. Even if the loss is very small compared to the annual $540 billion income of NYC residents, it is still ridiculous that the transit system is causing such detriment to the city.

Delays by no means are the only problems plaguing the MTA, though. Issues ranging from outdated signalling technology, overcrowding, poor track maintenance, confusing reroutes and track jumping are common major issues.

Andy Byford, the CEO of NYC’s Transit Authority, has suggested that a massive overhaul of the subway over the next 10 years will cost $37 billion. But by 2022, the MTA is predicted to be in $42 billion debt. Politicians such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo has suggested that he would like to enact “congestion pricing” for those entering Manhattan. There could potentially be other capital-raising initiatives that can serve to finance such necessary but ambitious projects.

But how did the MTA arrive at such a dire state? Where did it go wrong?

The budget has been inefficiently allocated since the 1990s. City and state cuts didn’t stop politicians from using the MTA’s budget to engage in completely unrelated tasks. For example, Governor Cuomo allocated money to bail out upstate ski resorts. Many politicians have embarked on “pet projects” to show their constituents that they’ve done something for the city even though they are ignoring the core issues the MTA faces today. Silver Sheldon, former speaker of the New York General Assembly, used $1.5 billion to build Fulton Center, which didn’t receive any more foot traffic, ridership or trains than it did before.

The debt climbed up when Wall Street approached Governor Pataki to buy the MTA’s debt in exchange for cash. However, that debt still hasn’t been paid off. Furthermore, to borrow even more money, the MTA has issued bonds. Every time they issued a bond to raise capital, the state charges a bond issuance fee. This has amounted to $328 million over the past 15 years.

Besides the mismanagement of funds, there are other logistical reasons that the subway has suffered so many delays. The New York Times has proposed two reasons why the subway system has such ridiculous wait times. First, increased space between subway carts have to misconfigurations of new signals installed to regulate the gap between carts, which has caused more delays. A correct signal is designed so that trains maintain the speed limit and can pass through the signal seamlessly. However, a misconfigured signal will cause the train to automatically brake even if they are going the speed limit. Conductors often slow down near faulty signals. All of these factors together have slowed down many trains especially since signals aren’t maintained properly.

Second, new rules that have have altered safety zones and increased setup times. For instance, if there are three adjacent tracks, A, B, and C, and work is being done on track B, the adjacent sections of tracks A and C will become slow zones. Such a policy has reduced the number of trains that can run by a significant amount. Moreover, it was initially introduced to protect track workers, but there are still track-related injuries and deaths.

The MTA decided to both lower speeds and increase distances between carts, instead of doing one or the other.

According to the MTA: The Nest 40 Years presentation, the authority plans to “Invest based on meeting specific needs, use the existing system as much as practicable, eliminate overcrowding and long travel times, eliminate barriers to access to the regional transit network, and exercise planning and investment discipline that transcends administrations and economic cycles.”

Although the MTA and its riders have endured hardships that shouldn’t have persisted till now, at least the MTA is determined to make a change. Let’s hope the next 40 years brings the changes New Yorkers have demand for so long.

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