What Can NYC Do to Solve Subway Delays? Not Much

If you ask Nelson Beltran, a 31-year old volunteer with the advocacy group Transportation Alternatives, if he is satisfied with the city’s subway performance, he does not hesitate to respond.

“I don’t even know where to start,” said Beltran.

Beltran, like a lot of residents of New York City, cares about the city’s subway system, but is frustrated by frequent delays, crowded trains, and breakdowns. And the complaints seem to resonate more since MTA raised its fare—by $5—to $121 for a monthly MetroCard. Worse, though, he doesn’t think the city has much control over the problem. 

New York’s transit system is one of the largest in the world. The New York City Transit system, which is part of the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) provides services to 5.6 million passengers a day. But it has received some pretty negative news coverage recently. In 2016 it found its on-time performance slid by almost eight percent, to 67.2 percent, compared with 2015, which means that 67.2 percent of its trains didn’t operate on schedule. And in February, The New York Times reported the number of subway delays has increased by 150 percent, more than 70,000 times each month, from about 28,000 in 2012.

An electronic display at the Times Square–42nd Street Station shows multiple train services delayed or detoured during the afternoon rush hour. Keenan Chen for NY City News.

An electronic display at the Times Square–42nd Street Station shows multiple train services delayed or detoured during the afternoon rush hour. Keenan Chen for NY City News.

“You understand we get to a point that if we don’t do something, it’s going to be unbearable,” said Beltran, who takes the B Line and D Line daily.

Supporters of public transportation in the city argue that in order to match the increasing demand for subway service, the city and state government have to allocate more funding to the system. Already, statistics from the MTA show subway ridership between 2010 and 2015 increased by more than 9.5 percent, meaning that the subway is becoming more crowded.

What truly frustrates transportation advocates like Beltran, though, is not so much the bad numbers as the fact that they do not believe that City Hall has too many options or incentives to improve the subway system’s reliability. Among the MTA board’s 14 voting members, the governor nominates six of them, while the New York City’s mayor nominates four. Close to half of the MTA’s budget come from state and local government subsidies and taxes, while the rest is from tolls and fares.

While the city contributes hundreds of millions of dollars to the capital plan administered by the MTA, the majority of the power for the MTA rests with Albany, which contributes a bigger portion to the public transportation network’s budget.

“The city is largely helpless to address the MTA problem,” said Alex Matthiessen, president of Move NY, a public transportation advocacy group that lobbied in Albany to invest more in the city’s public transit that in early 2015. “Since the mayor has little influence, even the city has a lot of extra money lying around, I think the mayor would understandably be reluctant to direct it to the MTA.”

After days of gridlock and delay, Albany in early April finalized the coming year’s state budget. The appropriation to the MTA’s operating fund, at $4.486 billion, is largely consistent with the proposal put forward by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who claimed it would increase the agency’s funding by $30 million. Yet, some public transportation advocates were quick to point out that, considering inflation and the expiration of a payroll tax into consideration, funding to the MTA will be actually cut by $65 million.

In a statement, the New York-based public transportation advocacy group, Straphangers Campaign, said that “while the MTA may be able to maintain its current level of service without these funds, it’s arguable that the current level of service provided to riders is insufficient.” In a previous study, the Straphangers Campaign found the breakdown rate of the city’s subway cars in 2016 increased by 7 percent compared to 2015.

“Particularly in light of the most recent fare hike, riders are already doing their part to fund transit. We expect that the state do the same,” the report says.

A communication control system—a crucial system for on-time trains—is available only on the L Line, and the installation of such a system on the 7 Line won’t be completed until 2018. To install this system on every subway line would require major investment. For example, the MTA announced in 2015 it would pay more than $205 million to install this just on the Queens Boulevard Line, which runs from Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan to 169th Street in Jamaica in Queens.

But in its 2016 report, the New York State Office of the State Comptroller criticized the MTA for underfunding the upgrade. “The assessment calls for replacement of antiquated signals as well as modernization of half of the system to CBTC by 2034—nearly two decades away,” the report says. “Progress toward CBTC will remain slow.”

In January, a MTA long Island Railroad train derailed at Brooklyn’s Atlantic Terminal, injuring over 100 commuters. Activists like Beltran and Matthiessen are worried that Albany is missing the opportunity to fix and maintain the public transportation network that is essential to millions of New York residents and the city’s booming economy.

“The neglect of the system that we’ve seen today ends up in some terrible accidents,” said Matthiesen. “If you neglect the system, you’re just improving chances that much more serious derail and people get hurt.”