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Thursday, June 29, 2017

The Transit State of Emergency

In a move that only makes sense in New York City, the governor Andrew Cuomo declared a "state of emergency" regarding the transit system.  What this means is that after decades of political interference in the transit system, things have deteriorated to such an extent that the governor is pushing aside the management in order to have more political interference.  It's the liberal answer to everything:  more government.

The problem in New York is that almost every component of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority is failing to perform.  The subways are experiencing all manner of delays and there have been frequent breakdowns and even derailments underground.  The commuter trains of the LIRR and MetroNorth have seen multiple derailments and endless delays particularly at Penn Station, the Manhattan Terminus of the Long Island Railroad.   The buses are overcrowded.  Even the bridges and tunnels are seeing an uptick in delays.

To be fair, the number of people using these systems has been skyrocketing over the last 15 years.  Nevertheless, the lack of maintenance for the system and the misallocation of assets have left the system falling apart.  It just cannot handle the current burdens.  it's not that the systems lack capital expenditures.  It's just that those expenditures are squandered by mismanagement and a lack of control.  Here are some examples:

About 20 years ago, the MTA began serious work to build what is called the Eastside Connector.  This is a rail link that allows trains from Long Island to go to Grand Central Terminal rather than Penn Station.  This modification will let the quarter of a million daily commenters from Long Island go to the eastside of Manhattan rather than the westside.  It will be a convenience that should make the commute easier for up to 100,000 riders each day.  Construction began about 2002 and was to be complete by 2008.  The project is still not complete.  Meanwhile, the cost estimate for the final project has gone up by roughly 20 billion dollars.  That's between four and five years of the total capital budget for the MTA.  Why is that?  Probably the most important reason is that the politicians decided that the new lines coming into Grand Central Terminal required an entire new level to be built underneath the existing station.  They could have approved bring trains to the current station; it had the capacity to handle those trains, but the politicians wanted something to show the people.  As a result, billions of dollars and many additional years were spent to get votes by impressing the people.

After 9-11, the transit stations near the site of the World Trade Center needed to be rebuilt as the new buildings there went up.  Once again, the stations could have been completely renovated without a major change to their footprint.  That would have been much less costly and taken much less time, but the politicians wouldn't have it.  They needed a magnificent new series of stations so that they could impress the voters.  As a result, billions more were spent and years of delay ensued.

There's more than just these two examples, many more indeed.  The point, however, is that if a superior system had been installed in these locations without all the politically required extras, there would have been something like an extra fifteen billion dollars available for maintenance of the existing system.  That's more than enough to have prevented all the recent problems and even to have improved the riding experience for the bulk of the passengers. 

It's truly odd that the same people who caused this mess are now moving to fix the problem by giving themselves MORE control.  If you have a surgeon who botches an operation, it doesn't make sense to go back to the same doctor for followup surgery; you try to find someone competent.  In New York, however, logic never matters.

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