The subway system is essential to New York City. Photo: Wells Baum

Close your eyes for a second. When you do, I want you to try to imagine one thing that, if it were gone or stopped working for a day or even just a few hours, would bring the entirety of New York City to a standstill. What did you guess? Perhaps the electrical system, but that’s obvious, or the labor of the people working, but that’s true of any city.

The one thing practically uniquely true of New York among American cities is that without our public transit system, the city collapses. It’s not, like in many other cities, a municipal afterthought run somewhat begrudgingly to serve the lowest-income workers that keep cities afloat but can’t afford to get a car. The subway is absolutely existential and ridden frequently by people wearing both Casios and Rolexes. I wouldn’t exactly call it our pride and joy — there’s hardly a more hometown activity than complaining about the Metropolitan Transit Authority, perhaps even more-so than complaining about the weather — but it is in some fundamental senses what helps make New York, New York.

The subway is struggling to reach 70% of pre-pandemic ridership. Photo: Kit Suman

Not everyone seems to understand this. The quirk of having the MTA be a state agency, outside of direct city control — a result of a clever power grab by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in 1968 — consistently puts it in the political crossfire, with upstate and even suburban New York lawmakers complaining bitterly about costs and the money spigot necessary to keep it afloat. The real emergency now, though, is cratering fare revenues, driven by a steep ridership decline during the pandemic that has not fully rebounded as expected. While some stations seem to have sprung back, the system as a whole is struggling to reach 70% of pre-pandemic ridership.

That represents billions of dollars in operating revenue that has essentially vanished, and while a decline in ridership might lessen certain types of incidental costs like subway cleaning, running a train costs about the same whether 10 people or 500 people are on it. While our general human optimism is a good thing, New Yorkers who’ve seen cycles of public transit service getting worse, then a little better, then much worse know that there’s no rule of the universe that says the subways have to work well, or even work. Yet it’s difficult to really lay out just how bad it could get, and how fundamentally it could damage New York’s economy and general sense of community and self.

Significant fare hikes/service cuts are expected 

Fare hikes are coming. Photo Paulo Silva

In response to the crisis, officials are scrambling. MTA CEO Janno Lieber has, in meetings and interviews, been warning darkly about the prospect of significant fare hikes and outright service cuts, though he wrote this week in an op-ed that the MTA-related measures in Gov. Kathy Hochul’s executive budget, including a slight increase in a payroll tax, fare and toll increases, and a one-time cash infusion, would stave off the worst, and correctly called public transit “like air and water – we need it to survive.” He also predicted “a lot of discussion in Albany and beyond about the specifics of this proposal.”

He was right there, too. A bipartisan coalition of state legislators from suburban New York, including the Hudson Valley and Long Island, have already sent a letter to Senate majority leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins balking about the proposed payroll tax increase, claiming suburban communities would not benefit from the bolstering of the MTA’s finances. As noted in a New York Daily News editorial today, the math here doesn’t add up, especially if this group is assuming their constituents aren’t dependent on both the MTA and NYC’s economic output, which they very much are. The broader point though is several factions are engaged in a bruising fight over the MTA’s finances and the next few months could be determinative about the long-term health and viability of the system.

None of this is to say the detractors are just blowing smoke when it comes to the expense. The MTA’s expenditures are consistently hideously inefficient. In the memorably titled “The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth,” New York Times investigative reporter Brian Rosenthal laid out just that, how MTA megaprojects like the Second Avenue Subway were essentially black holes of money that sucked in massive amounts of funding that fundamentally did not go toward making the services better. Instead, money was siphoned away at every step by politically connected unions, contractors, consultants, and others in a system that resisted reform and was practically designed for waste.

Same story, year after year

Photo: Son of Sam

That story is now a few years old, but the paradigm has not fundamentally changed. Two years after that story came out, the MTA pledged to make 70 stations accessible with the addition of elevators, undoubtedly a welcome move, except for the fact that it put the price tag at $5.5 billion. Five point five billion United States dollars. For context, that’s a bit more than Philadelphia’s municipal budget for that year. The entire city’s budget. Bringing LIRR service to Grand Central, which just opened last month, was projected to have cost about $11.1 billion. So when the MTA comes, hat in hand, it’s perfectly legitimate to ask what exactly they’re planning on spending all this money on, and why exactly they can’t make do with their existing level of funding.

All of this puts us as New Yorkers in kind of an impossible situation. It’s clear the MTA can’t continue to be run this way, massively overspending for relatively middling service and always asking for more. Yet as things stand, right now, the authority needs the money to keep running consistent service and not balloon fares. Without that, the system threatens collapse, and none of us really want to find out what it looks like if the MTA truly tumbles over.

So what do we do? I don’t have a great answer, except to say maybe we should hold our nose and sign the checks, but make it clear that the current approach is unacceptable. The only way that message gets across is through public pressure, and electorally. Unless you want to pay more for a crucial service than people anywhere else in the world, then you should make it clear to your elected officials that this complacency is a dealbreaker.

Felipe De La Hoz is an immigration-focused journalist who has written investigative and analytic articles, explainers, essays, and columns for the New Republic, The Washington Post, New York Mag, Slate,...

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