With eight million rides a day, subways and buses are the lifeblood of New York City. Instead of meeting growing need, subway performance has declined, with delays almost quadrupling — from 20,000 per month in May 2012 to 76,000 in January 2018. On-time performance hovers at a failing 60%, much lower than any other transit system in the world. Trains now move slower than they did in 1950.
The Governor of New York is in charge of the subways. And for eight years, straphangers have been neglected and ignored by the current administration. The way he’s handled this issue for his first two terms should completely disqualify him from a third.
We don’t have any choice but to fix our subways. The Governor has kicked this can down the road for eight years because it doesn’t affect him or his wealthy donors. New Yorkers deserve better than to be stuck in a perpetual signal delay. We need to start moving forward.
We can’t fix the subway until we have a governor who knows it’s her job to fund the MTA. Governor Cuomo has no plan to bring relief to millions of subway riders. I do.
How to Get Subways and Buses Moving Again
The Fast Forward plan presented by Andy Byford, president of the New York City Transit Authority, is a major step forward. Cuomo personally interviewed Byford and effectively appointed him, but after Byford announced his plan, Cuomo initially refused to commit to funding the plan or even to broadly support its recommendations. Then, an entire week later, he finally caved and said he supported congestion pricing and Byford’s plan.
The problem is the Cuomo has said he’ll use comprehensive congestion pricing to fix the subways before, and then he abandoned it. Why should we believe that Cuomo will stick with it this time? Especially when there’s no chance of it getting through the legislature before they break in June? And why is he ruling out a millionaires’ tax as part of the funding solution?
The following report is an overview of my plan to end the crisis and fix our subway system. It amplifies the bold plan presented by Andy Byford, while presenting an actual funding solution.
Modernize Malfunctioning Subway Signals in Ten Years
Commutes are scrambled when signals stop working. Often, it’s as simple as a train traffic light stuck on red because the technology is from the 1930s and the parts haven’t been properly maintained or replaced in years. In short order, trains stack up all the way to their terminals as work crews rush to patch and paste the system. As many experts have noted, it’s long past time to install a modern, reliable signal system.
In addition to prioritizing repairs to provide the most impact for the most riders, the MTA should also prioritize work in a way that ensures equity in the speed of repairs across geographies and populations, and in a way that takes into consideration those enduring the most commuting hardship.
Modern communications-based train control, a proven technology for safely running trains more reliably and closer together, has been long delayed in coming to New York. Rather than spend several years installing it one by one on each subway line, we should get new signals up and running across the system.
The MTA continues to experiment with new technology like ultra-wideband radio, which could deliver better train service more quickly and cheaply. We should continue to develop technology and use it when proven effective. In the meantime, we should not hesitate to invest heavily in proven, effective technology like communications-based train control to upgrade our 1930s-era signals.
Replace Creaky Subway Cars from the 1960s and 1970s in Ten Years
Some train cars on the A, C, J, and Z lines were running in New York before the Beatles came to America. After several years in service, U.S. astronauts landed on the moon. Today, these same cars break down the most frequently of any trains, and they squeal and shake with every station stop. It’s long past time to replace them with modern, reliable, and safe equipment.
Expand the Subway Fleet to Accommodate More Riders and Relieve Crowding
With near record crowds boarding the subway each day, the existing fleet is too small to comfortably meet New Yorkers’ needs. Once we have modern signals, we’ll be able to run trains closer together and accommodate additional trains on chronically overcrowded lines. It’s time to invest in new cars to expand the subway fleet and make rush hour feel less like a sardine can.
A Fair Way to Pay for a Subway that Works
While the MTA hasn’t put out a clear number on the cost to repair their subway, probably due to political pressure from the Governor, we will need a dedicated revenue stream that can be reliably counted on. It is very likely that to repair an infrastructure problem this significant, we will also need multiple revenue streams. To meet those needs, we propose comprehensive congestion pricing, as well as funding from part of the revenue generated from a polluter fee and a millionaires tax.
Comprehensive Congestion Pricing:
Charge Private Cars and Trucks to Drive in the Manhattan Central Business District
Private car owners in New York City earn more than double the income of households that have no car — and car owners who drive into the central business district regularly for work are wealthier still. A recent study from the Community Service Society found that only 2% of working poor New Yorkers would be subject to a congestion fee applied to cars that drive into the center of Manhattan and only 4% of outer-borough residents commute to jobs in Manhattan by vehicle. The study estimates that 118,000 outer-borough residents rely on vehicles for their commute to work compared to 2.1 million who rely on public transit.
Last fall, Governor Cuomo convened a panel called Fix NYC to recommend policies that would create revenue to fix our subways and reduce traffic congestion. The best versions of these proposals are not only capable of raising billions of dollars to fix public transportation; they are also fair and just, with the heaviest burden for payment falling on wealthier households and the greatest benefits going to public transit riders, including a specific focus on the outer-boroughs and on improving options in transit deserts.
But in this year’s budget, Governor Cuomo only implemented one portion of the Fix NYC plan by imposing a flat fee on yellow cabs, Ubers, and Lyfts, without touching private cars and trucks. This move not only goes against the intent of the panel’s recommendations, but could be disastrous for yellow cab drivers facing desperate times. Experts say that solely hitting for-hire vehicles will neither significantly decrease congestion nor generate the revenue needed to fix the subways. We need a pricing system that is fair to all drivers and riders.
Our plan would keep the surcharge on for-hire vehicles, but would add a congestion pricing fee for entry and exit into the congestion pricing zone of $5.76 each way. Trucks would pay a higher fee, calculated in the same way the MTA accounts for other truck bridge tolls based on the number of axles. According to Fix NYC’s report, this plan would raise over $1 billion annually.
This will allow New York State to issue bonds which would go a long way towards funding a large scale, accelerated plan like Fast Forward. In order to make the congestion charge as fair as possible, and to minimize the concern for those who can’t afford to pay, we could consider various modifications to the Fix NYC panel recommendations, as described below.
Give Drivers Far From Transit a Break
Money raised from these three revenue sources would pay to reduce tolls elsewhere in the city, for example, on Staten Island and in eastern Queens, where the subways don’t run. While New York has an extensive transit system, it currently doesn’t reach the entire city quickly enough from the Manhattan core, nor does it effectively connect outer-boroughs to one another. The Move NY proposal, a precursor to the Fix NYC panel recommendations, included a toll reduction on some bridges that lack transit access nearby, such as the Verrazano and the Bronx-Whitestone and other bridges that connect boroughs outside Manhattan. Funds raised from new revenue should also be put toward improving mass transit in these transit deserts.
Rebates for Low-Income Drivers
Low-income drivers who need to commute into Manhattan by car would be eligible for a partial toll rebate, so they wouldn’t have to pay any more than the cost of a subway ride. Congestion pricing is already a fair policy that charges a relatively small number of wealthy people to get millions more moving again, and also cut down on traffic for those who still drive. A low-income rebate will make it even fairer still.
A Millionaires Tax
Corporations and the ultra-rich have been given enormous tax breaks under Andrew Cuomo. Cuomo’s austerity budgets have starved localities of much needed infrastructure resources. By increasing revenue generated through a Millionaires Tax, we can dedicate a portion of the additional funds for fixing our subways.
As part of our “Just Transition” climate platform, we will enact a polluter fee that will generate billions of dollars to be used to fund New York’s transition to green energy. As carbon emissions are greatly reduced by high-functioning public transit systems, a portion of the polluter fee can and should be dedicated towards fixing our subways so that they run more efficiently and more people can ride them.
Transit We Can Trust
A Full Accounting of MTA Assets
MTA equipment is old, outdated and failing. But the public doesn’t even have a full, easy-to-understand accounting of what that equipment is and how long we can expect it to last. The MTA needs a ledger for every piece of equipment and report on its depreciated value and the remainder of its useful life. The MTA should share that information with the public, updated every year, to bring sunlight to the system’s capital needs and to demonstrate through full transparency that we need to make up for years of underinvestment and lack of maintenance of valuable equipment that belongs to the public.
A True Transit Lockbox — What’s Intended for Transit is Spent On Transit
There is a sad history of money for transit being funneled to other purposes, most pointedly so under our current Governor. Sometimes, that outright shifting of resources is far from the transit system, from the MTA to upstate ski resorts, bridge lights or to plug gaps in the state budget. Revenue streams that were created to pay for transit should be required to pay for transit.
An Efficient, Reliable, And Environmentally Sound Bus System
Redesign the Bus Network for 21st Century Needs
New York City Transit, which operates the city’s bus system, acknowledges that many bus lines trace the same routes as trolley tracks laid out in the 19th century — before cars, much less airplanes and airports, played a role in transportation. Nowadays, destinations like JFK International boasts thousands of jobs but nearly nonexistent bus service from nearby Brooklyn and Queens neighborhoods where workers live. According to city data, nearly half of New York’s job growth between 2010 and 2014 took place outside Manhattan, meaning many people no longer commute to traditional downtowns but to employment centers like malls, hospitals, and businesses spread throughout neighborhood streets. A redesigned bus network will get New Yorkers to work, effectively and directly, along routes that reflect how people commute in the 21st century.
Automate Bus Lane Enforcement by Lifting the Camera Restriction
One of the reasons buses move slowly is that, even in bus lanes, they get stuck behind other vehicles. For years, the state has capped the number of automated enforcement cameras used to ticket private vehicles that obstruct bus lanes. The result has been worse bus service and more flagrant violations. Lifting the restriction will allow broader enforcement of bus lanes, increase bus speeds, and encourage the city to create more bus lanes on more bus routes.
Follow Through on the MTA’s Plan for All-door Boarding
MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford recently released a bus plan that includes both a network redesign and a switch to all-door boarding, among other improvements. This vital improvement must happen on schedule, as the MTA implements a new and modern fare payment system to replace the Metrocard. In an all-door boarding system, people would be able to exit and enter the bus from any door, rather than lining up to pay one-by-one at the front of the bus. With new fare payment technology, people should be able to tap their card wherever they enter the bus, and inspectors should be able to verify electronically that people have paid. All-door boarding will allow faster, more reliable service, with the most gains for the busiest bus routes, and it will also help make the bus a more modern, appealing option for commuters.
Invest in Electric Buses
A 21st century bus fleet needs to be entirely electric to reduce the impact of diesel exhaust, especially on low-income communities and communities of color, where many bus depots are located. Cleaner bus service is an environmental equity issue that must no longer be ignored. An all-electric bus fleet will make transit that much more of an ecologically sound alternative to private cars, taxis, and for-hire vehicles.
An Accessible Transit Network
An Accessible Transit Network Within Ten Years
The subway is so often called the lifeblood of our city, and is what makes the city accessible to people all across the five boroughs. But at present, too many New Yorkers cannot ride the subway at all. Currently, New York has one of the least accessible mass transit systems in the entire world.
Only a small percentage of stations have elevators and even those elevators frequently break down. A modern subway should be open to all — riders in wheelchairs, with walkers, with strollers, with suitcases, and with bad knees and bad backs. The odds are high that at some time in each of our lives, we’ll all fall into one or more of those excluded categories. Our transit system should also consider the needs of people with vision and hearing disabilities and provide consistent audible and visual information about stops and service changes.
Like fixing the subway itself, creating an accessible system will not be cheap, easy or quick. But it’s what we owe each other. New York must move toward a 100 percent accessible transit system. It’s essential to making New York a fair city and enabling all New Yorkers to access everything the city has to offer, on equal terms with every other New Yorker.
A Fully Accessible Bus System Immediately
It’s time to end discrimination against bus riders with disabilities, enforce clear bus stops with cameras on board every bus, and guarantee that drivers are properly trained to respectfully serve all passengers. The MTA also needs to consider the needs of the elderly and people with disabilities when redesigning the bus network.
Historically, employment in transit has provided a ladder to the middle-class to a highly diverse array of New Yorkers. However, one marginalized group remains under-represented in transit employment — people with disabilities. Increasing recruitment and training for disabled transit workers to operate buses and perform other jobs will integrate a perspective of people with disabilities into the institutional culture. Disabled transit workers on a variety of jobs will help ensure that their co-workers are properly trained and personally aware of the needs of disabled riders.
On top of that, passengers with vision and hearing disabilities have difficulty using buses because stops are not consistently announced and lack digital displays to alert passengers who are Deaf or hard of hearing.
Paratransit on Demand for All Users
Not every New Yorker can safely and comfortably ride the bus. Indeed, 150,000 commuters are certified for Access-a-Ride services. But Access-a-Ride can barely be called service at all, given how poorly it meets riders’ needs. At present, riders must schedule trips in advance and, outrageously, it is often the riders who are penalized when drivers don’t show up on time.
Once on board, Access-a-Ride users can end up in citywide journeys of indefinite length, even missing scheduled appointments. This is no way for a state or its transit system to treat people with disabilities. Eligibility and enrollment rules should also be streamlined and made easier to understand. Access-a-Ride must be revamped to promptly and respectfully meet the needs of its riders so they can access not just their ride but the city itself.
The subway has become a symbol of Governor Cuomo’s disastrous austerity budgets that were balanced on the backs of millions of working New Yorkers. His negligence and reluctance to make the wealthy pay their fair share has created a crisis that could take decades to fix. New Yorkers can’t afford to wait that long. The subway is the lifeblood of our city. If the subway dies, so does the city of New York. We need bold leadership and immediate action from our next governor.