There is no shortage of egos in New York. One of them has a huge desire to be president. On October 10, two others, Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, put aside their long-simmering acrimony and agreed on a plan for sharing the costs of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s current five-year, $29 billion capital plan.
With apologies to the world’s forests, I printed a copy of the plan and found it to be encouraging, and depressing. Those billions are primarily intended to keep the system in a functional state of repair in all of its inspirational, if spotty, vastness. Much sleek new rolling stock is to be acquired, but it will mostly replace railcars and buses that have reached the end of the line. Only 20 of the system’s 469 subway stations will be renovated. A fair amount of money is earmarked for a couple of long-underway projects that extend the system, including the Second Avenue subway—first proposed in 1919. Service is predicted to commence on a stretch of that line next year, although, as part of the deal, it will stop at 96th Street, with completion of the vital segment to 125th Street delayed until at least 2020 (perhaps some of El Chapo’s people are available to accelerate the job). The other big addition is the East Side Access tunnel that will enable Long Island Rail Road trains to stop at Grand Central Terminal, not simply Penn Station. Altogether, “improvement”—as opposed to replacement and repair—amounts to 14 percent of the budget, a respectable sum for a big, old, and long-neglected operation.
Yet for all its urgent remediation of a mass-transit network marvelous in its extent, the plan’s overall philosophy is miserly. The MTA has once again bypassed literal and conceptual expansion of the system in the name of “necessity.” It’s a plan for people accustomed to hearing the word “crumbling” right before the word “infrastructure,” and for politicians who tend to look at capital expenditure on mass transit as either a jobs program (shovel-ready!) or the means of securing the continued viability of a system ever at the point of collapse. It’s also a plan for people who don’t question why the private car is still the engine of our national transportation budget. The fracas between New York State and New Jersey over the construction of a new railway tube under the Hudson River, stymied for years by the shortsightedness (masquerading as fiscal responsibility) of Governor Chris Christie, is an especially egregious example of the foolishness by which any big non-highway public project is held hostage. In China, Japan, and Europe, super-fast trains zip from town to town, while Amtrak improvements here are perennially derailed. Shanghai alone has built over 340 miles of subway track since 1986; it took New York City 25 years to extend the No. 7 train by one stop.