Subways: An underground update

Photo: Steven Strasser
We love it, we hate it, we can’t live without it. Here’s the latest about the system we all depend on

It’s raining hard and you race down the slippery sidewalk and into the subway — only to find it’s pouring down there, too, through cracks and gaping holes in the ceiling.

It’s the dog days of summer and you head into the subway in search of an air-conditioned car. Just your luck, the temperature on the crowded platform is 100 degrees, and the AC isn’t working in the car you squeeze into.

You’re in a subway and the train is hurtling through a tunnel. It suddenly comes to a stop — often due to signal problems or congestion — and you’re trapped for 10 or 15 minutes, which seems like an hour.

Such is the state of our 115-year-old subway system, riddled with outdated equipment and notoriously underfunded, at least partly due to political gamesmanship.

“Two years ago, the subway system was in crisis,” said Danny Pearlstein, a spokesman for Riders Alliance, a transit advocacy group that helped push for a congestion pricing plan that could generate up to $2 billion a year to help fix the subways. “It’s slowly getting better. Unfortunately, it’s much more complicated to fix an old system than to build a new one.”

Here’s a quick look at some of the issues that affect riders most:

CAPITAL CONSTRUCTION: There’s no denying the need to upgrade tracks, signals, cars and crumbling stations. In the two years since Governor Andrew Cuomo declared a subway emergency, the MTA has gone into hurry-up mode to carry out its current $33 billion capital construction plan, about $15 billion which goes to the subways. The MTA has launched new programs and time lines for rebuilding the system, but it depends on the size of its 2020-2024 capital plan, which is due out in the fall.

SERVICE: The MTA recently reported that on-time performance was 79.8 percent in May of 2019 compared to 66.3 percent in May 2018. The number of major incidents that delay 50 or more trains was down to 45 in May 2019 compared to 85 in May 2018.

HEAT: Last August, Regional Planning Association staffers surveyed some of the busiest subway stations across the city. The temperature on the street was 86 degrees, but the average platform temperature was 94.6 degrees. The hottest was the 14th St./Union Square station at 104 degrees, followed by 59th St./Columbus Circle, at 101. The MTA says the air conditioning system fails in just 2 percent of its 5,356 subway cars.

Financing and Other Challenges

So, are the subways fixable to any great degree? Or are we doomed to a one-band aid-at-a-time approach? And what are the biggest challenges facing the system?

We took those questions to some rider advocate groups, a subway expert and self-described “transit nerd,” the transit workers’ union and the MTA.

Nicole Gelinas, the “transit nerd” and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said the biggest obstacles are financing and MTA priorities. “The suburbs have always gotten more than their fair share of money for the commuter lines, like the LIRR,” Gelinas said, noting that about half of all capital spending goes to the suburban rail lines even though 93 percent of all commuters use the subways.

She also said government funding is always an issue; the state pledged $8.6 billion for the current capital plan, but has delivered just $979 million. Still, she added, the MTA must invest “more wisely” and prioritize projects better.

Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphanger Campaign, said the system tends to improve for a while and then regress, a pattern he attributes to management issues. “It oscillates,” he said. Another problem, in Russianoff’s view — funding earmarked for the subways sometimes ends up elsewhere. “The bottom line is that state politicians tie up money for their own projects,” he said.

Tony Utano, president of Transport Workers Union Local 100, said the biggest challenges are funding and the MTA’s dismal record when completing projects on time. “They never finish a lot of (capital and maintenance) projects on time and they need to get better at that,” said Utano. “It’s an old system. Trains and systems tend to break down if they are not maintained properly. They need to come up with good, workable plans and keep to the time frames ... You can’t just patch things up and move on.”

NYC Transit President Andy Byford has said, that with the proper funding, the first five years of his $40 billion Fast Forward program would result in new signal systems on five lines, 650 new subway cars, and station repairs, among other things.

Asked if he thinks the MTA can complete that five-year plan on time, Utano said: “It might take 10.”