Tired of New York’s Subways? Blame Andrew Cuomo
By NICK SIFUENTES MAY 22, 2017
When the Metropolitan Transportation Authority opened the Second Avenue Subway extension in January, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was quick to put his stamp on the new line. At news conferences, inaugural rides and even a star-studded New Year’s Eve party, the governor branded the project as his own.
Five months and innumerable subway breakdowns later, riders can hardly be faulted for asking: Where’s Governor Cuomo now?
New Yorkers have recently been treated to repeated subway meltdowns. This month, two power failures in Brooklyn caused delays and reroutings on seven lines. On April 24, a signal failure and track fire led to significant delays. And three days before that, a power failure in Midtown Manhattan led to a near systemwide breakdown.
These wholesale disasters come on top of all the minor breakdowns and delays that characterize a typical rush hour in New York these days. And each time these failures occur, we leave hundreds of thousands of riders stuck underground, sometimes for hours. The economic costs of these delays are enormous. But the human cost of missing work or school, or being late to pick up your kids from day care, or canceling appointments, is just as important.
Yet the governor has been conspicuously absent as riders vent their frustrations about our subway system. And when the M.T.A. finally announced a plan this week to tackle subway delays, Governor Cuomo was nowhere to be seen. Instead, the agency’s acting executive director talked about a $20 million investment to try to address the problem — a far cry from the billions of dollars the governor has promised the agency and so far failed to deliver.
As a state agency, the M.T.A. is ultimately run by Governor Cuomo — yet rather than face its challenges, he has instead taken up other priorities: rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge, redesigning La Guardia Airport, revamping Penn Station. In short, he has done an excellent job funding projects to help people flee New York City, but has been content to keep an arm’s length from a crumbling subway system that carries 1.7 billion passengers a year.
One reason is obvious: Governor Cuomo can use the M.T.A. as a shield from criticism from commuters, who blame the agency for their commuting woes instead of pointing the finger at the man behind the curtain. This misdirection gives the governor cover to raid tens of millions of dedicated transit dollars to fund other projects, spend two years refusing to fund the M.T.A.’s ambitious 2015-19 capital plan to invest in subway and bus infrastructure and — just a few months ago — wipe $65 million a year from our subways and buses with the stroke of a pen. The consequences of years of disinvestment have been severe: Riders now have to contend with more than 70,000 delays a month (well over a delay every minute) and record levels of overcrowding on trains.
The other reason for Mr. Cuomo’s avoidance is that fixing mass transit is difficult. It’s expensive, it’s complicated and the benefits often don’t accrue until long after the elected officials who funded them have moved on. Many a politician takes a hard look at public transit and decides to find an easier fight.
But right now, New Yorkers don’t need a politician. We need a leader like those who had the foresight to build this sprawling, messy, utterly essential system and sustain it for over a century. If we want to keep public transit running for another century, Governor Cuomo must make necessary investments now. As a first step, he should give the M.T.A. the full $8.3 billion he has promised for its capital program, rather than make it wait years and borrow billions of dollars more.
Governor Cuomo can think big when building bridges or airports. He should apply the same grand vision to our vital public transit system. Installing modern signals should take years, not decades — the current plan stretches beyond 2050 to implement 20th-century technology. He should replace all cars that are past their useful life; some of today’s trains date to the 1960s. He should make buses an attractive alternative for riders, as they are in London or Seoul, by investing in inexpensive improvements like all-door boarding and traffic light priority. And most important, he should announce an influx of state funding above and beyond the M.T.A.’s existing capital budget to pay for these necessary improvements, instead of making riders shoulder the cost through ever-increasing fares.
Over a year ago, my organization, the Riders Alliance, collected hundreds of “subway horror stories” from riders. Sadly, since that time, the problem has grown only worse. But there’s still something we can do: When you’re stuck this summer on a hot platform waiting for a train that seems as if it’ll never come, let the person most responsible for the success or failure of our public transit system know you’re upset. Use that newly installed subway Wi-Fi to tweet @NYGovCuomo. There are nearly 8.5 million rides on the system every day; if we speak with one voice, we can save our subways.