The MTA (and New York State and the New Federal Infrastructure Plan): Five-Plus Decades of Investing in the Suburbs and Disinvesting in the City

The era of large-scale federal infrastructure investment, from the 1950s through the 1970s, coincided with the era of suburban development and urban decline.  I don’t think that was a coincidence.  Cities had paid for their own infrastructure with local money, were still paying bonds for that infrastructure, and it was aging. The federal government then paid for brand new, up to date infrastructure for suburbs, and for rural areas that became suburbs, with taxes collected in part in cities, even as urban infrastructure declined.  Federal investment was limited to new infrastructure only at the time.  Most older central cities never recovered, and those that did only began to do so in the early 1980s, after the Reagan Administration cut federal investment and added local flexibility to how it was used.  More of it was then used to fix existing infrastructure, not just subsidize new suburban and exurban development.

Now it is 50 to 70 years later and the infrastructure of the suburbs is aging.  And because of lower densities, and thus more liner feet of road, water pipe, and sewer pipe per taxpayer, it will be more costly to replace with local taxes.  Some in the Strong Towns movement believe the suburbs are facing the sort of infrastructure decline the cities faced 50 years ago as a result. 

https://granolashotgun.wordpress.com/2016/01/12/teachers-pipes-and-pavement/

An issue that will be most acute in private communities responsible for their own local infrastructure, where people live so they can control who walks on their streets and not share a tax base with pre-1960 neighborhoods. Who will pay up when private sewage treatment plants fail and have to be replaced?  Did you hear about what happened at that collapsed Florida condo, where residents had argued for years about paying for fixes before disaster struck?

The older generations who live in these suburbs are used to getting things, but not fully paying for them.  The “I’ve got mine jack,” tax cut generations.  And here we have another federal infrastructure bill, enacted by suburban and Sunbelt Baby Boomers according to their preferred lifestyle, a lifestyle that poorer Millennials cannot afford and the global environment cannot sustain, to be paid for by those Millennials in the future, because most of it going to funded by soaring federal debts. With higher levels of governments (federal and state) making the choices as to how even the future money of city residents will be spent, how will New York and other older cities fare this time?

As an analogy this post will compare the suburban and city projects that the MTA promised in the Program for Action, released in early 1968 when it as formed, with the system expansions and maintenance of existing infrastructure that actually took place in the five-plus decades since.  And go from there.

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Remember that as part of the formation of the MTA, the City of New York gave up something valuable – the surplus toll revenue being generated by its Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority.  Yes Robert Moses controlled that agency, but it was a city agency, and city money.  In one of a long series of similar deals by New York City politicians, Mayor John Lindsay got some short-term fiscal relief in exchange for long-term disadvantage for city residents.  The MTA initially said that 67 percent of that toll surplus would go to city transit projects, but the city share quickly became far less, and frankly given that every future MTA revenue already been bonded against to pay for past spending, it might have fallen to zero.

A summary of the Program for Action, one that I will reorganize and comment on below, may be found here.

https://www.nycsubway.org/wiki/The_New_York_Transit_Authority_in_the_1970s

The Metropolitan Commuter Transportation Authority (what the MTA was called when it was first formed in 1968) released its “Program for Action” on February 28th, 1968. The program had two phases: phase I considered projects for immediate action and would run over a ten year period and phase II was to be carried out at the completion of phase I.  The plan considered all aspects of regional travel, affecting the subway, the LIRR, Penn Central, Erie-Lackawanna and New Haven railroads, as well as the regional airports.

Investments for New York City

Phase I

The Second Avenue subway from 34th St to the Bronx, with a connection to the 63rd St tunnel.   (And connections to other subway lines in the Bronx)

Construction started soon after the MTA was formed, but was halted soon after that – despite money being borrowed – for the second time — to build the line.  

In the 2000s money was borrowed for the Second Avenue Subway a third time, after the MTA promised the to build upper half of the line from 63rdStreet to 125thStreet, to take pressure off the overcrowded Lexington Avenue subway.  This was subsequently cut back to just three stations between 72ndStreet and 96thStreet; they finally opened in early 2017.  At $4.5 billion it was the most expensive heavy rail expansion, per mile, ever built, at a multiple of the cost of expansions in “socialistic” Europe (where workers who are not public employees or government contractors apparently count too).  

The goal of this investment was not only to add a second line the East Side, replacing the 3rdAvenue Elevated that had been torn down in the early 1950s (when money was borrowed “for the Second Avenue Subway” the first time).  But also to provide a place in Manhattan for the expanded subway service planned elsewhere to go.  The majority of the city track miles for expansions promised in 1968 were in Queens, the urban (other than Staten Island) borough with the most limited subway infrastructure.  

Aggressive completion of the 63rd Street tunnel as well as the connections to the IND 6th Ave line and the BMT’s Broadway Line. 

The 63rdStreet Tunnel, and the connection to the 6thAvenue and Broadway lines in Manhattan, were built in the early 1970s.   The 63rdStreet tunnel, however, would be a “tunnel to nowhere” until 2001, when it was connected to the existing Queens Boulevard Line.

A connection was supposed to be made from the 63rdStreet tunnel from Queens to the Second Avenue Subway southbound.  For every train that shifted from the upper Second Avenue Line to the 6thAvenue or BMT Broadway Line (as the Q train does today), another was supposed to head to East Midtown (and eventually downtown) from Queens.  Without the Second Avenue Subway connection, and more connections in Queens, the subway portion of the tunnel remains underutilized.

A super-express bypass for the IND Queens Blvd line, running along the LIRR main line that would leave the Queens Blvd line at 41st Ave and return to the Queens Blvd line in Forest Hills. This one-track line would provide additional express service in the peak direction. 

Not built.

A new subway line would divert from the IND Queens Blvd line in Elmhurst, Queens and run along the Long Island Expressway to Fresh Meadows, serving northeastern Queens. This would be a two-track line. 

Not built.

A new subway line would divert from the IND Queens Blvd Line at the Van Wyck stub at Hillside Ave and run along the LIRR Atlantic Branch ROW to Springfield Blvd, serving southeast Queens. This line would also be two tracks.

This line was only built as far as Parsons Blvd and Archer Ave, the terminal of today’s E, J and Z trains, and opened in 1988.   Black residents of Southeast Queens helped to stop any further expansion, on NIMBY grounds – a policy associated with then-Councilwoman Juanita Watkins.   She didn’t want her middle class neighborhood to be “downgraded” from commuter rail to subway, the inferior transportation mode for the inferior people.

Another plan would have converted the Montauk Branch of the LIRR to a subway, and connected it to the 63rdStreet tunnel.  But the working class White people of Southwest Queens — Archie Bunker land —  thought the subway would bring “crime” to their neighborhood, and fought against it.  One who rose to prominence as a subway NIMBY – congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, later the first woman to be a major party candidate for Vice President (1984).  Most of the LIRR stations along that line were closed in 1998, due to low ridership.

The IRT Division would see its Nostrand Avenue line extended along Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn to Avenue U. 

Not built.  

The new structure would have had to have been elevated (as all the other lines are south of the LIRR cut, other than the Fourth Avenue line), both because the area south of the current terminal might flood in a hurricane, and to get over the LIRR cut and Buckeye pipeline.  The fact that the new line would be elevated resulted in some NIMBY opposition.  But it’s mostly about money going elsewhere.

The IRT New Lots Ave line would be extended southerly to Flatlands Ave and Linwood Street. The line would run at ground level. In conjunction with this and the IRT Nostrand Ave line extension, the Rogers Ave junction would be reconstructed to increase capacity. 

Not built.  

Some at New York City Transit wanted the Rogers Junction rebuild included in the 2005 to 2009 capital plan, but it was left out.  Even if CBTC is someday installed on the IRT, this junction will remain a bottleneck that limits subway service on the 2, 3, 4 and 5 lines.  Of course another round of government-funded flight from the cities would solve that problem by making additional service unnecessary.

Constructing an LIRR spur to JFK to allow a one seat ride from Manhattan. Also provide the ability to change at Jamaica.  The line would run 3.5 miles from the LIRR Atlantic Branch to the terminals. The goal was a 20 minute run time from Manhattan. 

The Port Authority eventually built the Airtrain as far as a Jamaica transfer point.  It finally opened in 2003.

But given later service cuts, despite the fact that the Airtrain is driverless, it is likely that very few people actually make it just to Jamaica in 20 minutes, let alone Manhattan, if the two waits are included.  Use of the Airtrain is free for those moving around the terminals, and those traveling from airport parking lots.  From mass transit, however, the fee is $7.75, to keep those subway riders off the system.

As part of the original Airtrain plan, for which airport passengers have paid a per-ticket fee for decades, the system was supposed to run past Jamaica and on to LaGuardia Airport, and then onto Manhattan (later cut back to Long Island City).  And now, perhaps we will get a short backward Airtrain from LaGuardia that ends at a parking garage in Flushing, so well-paid airport workers (like well-paid NYC public employees) can live in the suburbs, drive to work, and avoid the collapsing mass transit system.   Presumably that Airtrain will also be free to those parking motor vehicles, but hugely expensive for transit riders.

A Second Avenue Subway has been promised, and money borrowed for it, three times – in the early 1950s and, with the formation of the MTA 1968, and in the 2000s.  Each time the project was postponed and cut back, and money diverted to the rehabilitation of the existing system.  And to cost over-runs, diverted to the Mafia through the 1990s, and to pension increases for construction industry workers cashing in and moving out since then. (The Mafia was more affordable). Has the MTA at least kept up with ongoing normal replacement on the subway?

The purchase of 500 high-speed subway cars equipped with air conditioning. 

At the time the MTA was formed, the oldest subway cars on the system were 153 R9s, built in 1940, and 400 R10s, built in 1948.  All the cars were fewer than 30 years old.  Under New York City ownership the entirety of the original subway fleet had been replaced between the public sector takeover in 1940 and the end of the 1960s.  The City of New York did invest its transit system, as well as roads, during the era when highways were being built.

The first MTA subway car purchase was the R44 and R46 cars, which entered service (after a long delay caused by cracking trucks) in the mid-1970s. The 750 R46s are still in service today, at 46 years old.  As are the 1,150 R62 cars on the IRT, built in the mid-1980s at 33 to 38 years old.  The bonds used to purchase them were refinanced for a total of 50 years.  In fact the last pre-MTA cars, some R32s, were only retired in October 2020, after 55 years of service.  So the subway car fleet, after 53 years of MTA operation, is significantly older than the fleet the agency inherited, despite $billions of MTA debt bonded against future revenues.

Believe it or not, I don’t think this is terrible.  If – if!– properly maintained and occasionally overhauled, stainless steel rail cars should be able to last 50-plus years, as did the R32s.  If anything, I think politicians tend to overinvest in the rail cars that people can see, and neglect the infrastructure those cars run on, that people can’t see, leading to service collapses.

For example – the signal system.  When the MTA took over, the City of New York had already replaced the original signals at the DeKalb interlocking, the BMT Broadway Line in Manhattan, the IRT (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) in Manhattan (and up through 149th Street in the Bronx), and the Nevins Street interlocking in Brooklyn, with second generation equipment.  In 1968 the oldest signal systems were the rest of those installed as part of the Dual Contracts between 1915 and 1920 – ages 48 to 53.   

But signal replacement stalled out in the 1970s under MTA deferred maintenance, and again after 2008 under Governor Cuomo, leaving ongoing normal replacement well behind.  Particularly for the IND, the portion of the system built by the city after the Dual Contracts, between the late 1920s and early 1930s. 

Among the signal systems now at least 85 years old are those on the 8th Avenue (A, C, E) and 6th Avenue (B, D, F, M) main lines in Manhattan, the Fulton Street line (A, C) in Brooklyn, and the Crosstown Line (G).  I had been told that 75 years was the “drop dead date” for these systems. The other IND main line, the Queens Boulevard Line, is having its signals replaced at the unaffordable cost of $725 million.  At that price there is, simply put, no hope for the future of the New York City subway.

https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/ny-signals-cbtc-subway-mta-project-20210418-swdihb2sjzew3lvsj6v5qglzby-story.html

Technology called communications-based train control, or CBTC, is believed by transit officials to be a silver bullet for many of the subway’s problems. The technology uses computers to drive trains, allowing them to operate closer together and at faster speeds.

Only the subway’s No. 7 and L lines are equipped with the tech. The rest of the subway relies on aging systems, some of which date back to the 1930s.

If the MTA had kept up with signal replacement, under the plans when I last worked there (before the capital program essentially disappeared except for the suburbs), this project would have been done five years go. No one is asking about it, let along holding anyone accountable.

And coming up behind the IND are the IRT signal systems the City of New York replaced in the late 1950s and early 1960s – including the Lexington Avenue line, the most heavily used subway line, last replaced in 1963 and now 58 years old.  The signals were supposed to be replaced very 60 years, but are now much older, on average, than they had been when the MTA was formed.

While I don’t have the facts to back this up, given what I know about subway cars and signals, what would you expect about the subway power system, water pumping system, fan plants, the tunnel lighting and the rest?  The MTA (or rather the politicians that have controlled it) have borrowed $billions, all while having the subway, net, depreciate.  And in the latest twist, the agency has stopped publishing a 20-year capital needs statement, to make this less obvious.

Expansion of yards and shops to accommodate the increase in the size of the fleet. 

There have been rehabilitation projects for shops and yards — and bus depots.  But an expansion of the fleet has been for additional spares, because peak hour subway service is less than before the MTA took over.  

Rehabilitating SIRT and obtaining new equipment for the line.

This happened.   Perhaps Staten Island was thought to be the suburbs too.  But according to the article cited above…

The SIRT was considered to be in the worst physical condition of any facility ever taken over by the MTA.

Plans for the City Phase II:

Completion of the Second Avenue subway from 34th Street south to the Financial District along Water Street to Whitehall Street. It would pass through the Grand Street station of the Chrystie Street connection to allow a cross platform transfer with IND 6th Avenue trains. (The Grand Street station was built with this provision in mind.) 

This was not built.

And it is not even proposed to be built.  

Without it what is left of the Second Avenue Subway provides no connection for people in Brooklyn and Queens who might have transferred to it for a faster and less crowded (compared with the Lex) ride to East Midtown, and to the hospitals and other institutions on the far East Side.  

Not only that, but the Tunnel Boring Machine (TBM) used to drill out the upper part of the Second Avenue Subway was left behind underground. It is possible that it is in the way of any future construction to the south – a cost-inflating poison pill and excuse not to continue expanding in that direction.  Why didn’t they just keep a small crew, with one weekday shift, tunneling forward a little at a time, taking one work train full of spoils out each overnight, the way the city has slowly, slowly built the third water tunnel?  The per-year cost would not have been that great, and by now the tunnels would be sitting there, waiting for the rest of the project.

A midtown distribution system along 57th, 48th, 42nd and 33rd Sts, using some kind of guided systems (ala Morgantown) to link terminals, offices and other travel points. 

Not built.  

Although one might say that micro-mobility services such as Citibike have, at long last, provided that sort of “last mile” connectivity for Manhattan.  No thanks to the State of New York and its MTA.  Bicycles and e-bikes are surely the fastest way cross-town in Manhattan, if you can avoid getting run over. 

Extending the Pelham Bay Line to Co-op City in the Bronx. 

Not built.  

Four additional Bronx commuter rail stations are proposed as part of the Metro North to Penn Station project.  

Not that I object, but the primary purpose of these stations is to bring low-wage workers from the East Bronx to jobs in coastal Connecticut, so businesses there can benefit from that workforce without having it live in their state, and thus without paying taxes for the public services the workers require.  This, as much as providing East Bronx workers with a faster trip to Manhattan, is the goal. With regard to commuting to Manhattan, some would no longer be dependent be on slower and less convenient options like subways and busses, according to the article.

The cost of the four stations — $1.58 billion, or an average of $400 million each.  The cost of a similar commuter rail station added to an existing line in the city of Boston, by a private developer:  $20 million.

https://nerej.com/ground-breaking-held-for-20-million-boston-landing-at-allston-brighton-rail-station-construction-project

Extending the IND Concourse Line to White Plains Road, providing easy transfers to the IRT White Plains Road line. 

Not built.

Extension of the subway east of Jamaica and razing the El along Jamaica Avenue. 

The Jamaica El was torn down when the Archer Avenue line opened (see above), but it was not extended east of Jamaica.  Five pre-MTA stations on an elevated structure were replaced with three underground stations.

Replacing the 3rd Ave El in the Bronx with a new subway line running adjacent to the New Haven Line ROW along Park Avenue. 

The MTA closed 14 stations and replaced the 3rd Ave El in the Bronx with “extended BX-55” bus service in 1973.

Give the MTA credit for the stations added as part of the Second Avenue stub and the 63rdStreet line, and the Flushing Extension, and the MTA is still providing the New York City Subway with many fewer stations than it had when the state/MTA took over in 1968.  Instead of expanding, the MTA shrunk the city’s rail transit system.

Just as the MTA provided less peak hour service than the City of New York had decades earlier, even as ridership boomed in the mid-2000s.

A new station at 149th St (Bronx) to provide easy interchanges between the Penn Central, the New Haven and the subway.

Not built.

A new Metro North station was built near Yankee Stadium, making the use of the subway by Hudson Valley and Connecticut suburbanites unnecessary.

More shop and yard improvements. 

Continue the rehab project on SIRT. 

500 more new subway cars, air conditioned. 

As noted the subway car fleet has aged, net under MTA ownership. At an average life of 40 years, the subway needs about 168 new cars per year.  Assume a 50 year average life and it still needs 134.  But the MTA has not kept up.  According to the National Transit Database…

https://www.transit.dot.gov/ntd/ntd-data

In 2019 the 6,714 subway cars had an average age of 24.4 years, with 2,786 being more than 30 years old.  OK.  On MetroNorth the 274 commuter rail passenger coaches (for diesel trains) averaged a similar 25.2 years old, but the 874 self-propelled electric coaches averaged just 14.0 years old.  On the LIRR the 134 commuter rail passenger coaches for diesel trains averaged 20.6 years old, while the 988 self propelled electric cars averaged just 16.7 years old. 

So much for the original MTA plans for NYC.  What about the suburbs?

Investments for the Suburbs

Phase 1

350 new MU cars for the LIRR. 

Most of the entire LIRR electric fleet has been replaced by the MTA not once, but twice.  Most of the original purchase, the M1s, only lasted 30 years, because the graft-ridden and featherbedded LIRR maintenance staff didn’t bother to maintain them.  They had been expected to last 60 years, like the LIRR train cars they replaced, and New York City Transit’s R32 cars.

As noted above the LIRR fleet is now much younger and in better condition than it had been when the MTA took over – while the opposite is true of the subway.

Commencement of a high-platform project on the LIRR. 

The whole Babylon Line was rebuilt to a much higher standard, among other lines.

Electrifying the LIRR Main Line to Pinelawn. 

It has been electrified all the way to Ronkonkoma – originally Phase II. The Third Track project now underway (after being held up by NIMBYs) will increase the capacity and service quality of the line in the future, and eliminate grade crossings.  

Like the new East Bronx Metro North stations, one purpose of the third track is to increase reverse peak service, allowing low wage city workers to commute to jobs in exclusionary suburbs that don’t want them to move in.

Electrifying the Port Jefferson branch to Northport. 

This project was funded and ready to go a couple of decades ago, but held up by NIMBYS.  It is now “decades away.” 

Extending electrification of the Port Jefferson branch east of Huntington has been talked about for decades. In the 1980s, discussions took place between the MTA, LIRR, Suffolk County and various elected officials over which branch should be electrified first. The Ronkonkoma branch was selected over the Port Jefferson branch.

I was working for the MTA when a second shot at Port Jefferson Branch electrification was cancelled in the early 2000s.  The problem, I heard, was the need to install a new electrified rail yard, a yard that no community toward the end of the line was prepared to host. 

But why couldn’t they just electrify the existing nine-track yard east of Port Jefferson Station?  Because that would disrupt service?  A more nimble and less broke government agency would have shut the line during 2020, when few were using it, and quickly installed electric equipment along the line and in the yard, to be switched on later.

A new Metropolitan Transportation Center (MTC) in the vicinity of 48th St and 3rd Ave. The MTC would facilitate easy intermodal transfers between the LIRR, the Second Avenue line, the IRT Lexington Ave Line at Grand Central as well as Grand Central Terminal. 

When East Side Access finally opens, connecting the LIRR to Grand Central Station, the LIRR will have gotten all the major expansion projects it was promised back in 1968, save for the Port Jefferson electrification.  It will be possible for residents of many Long Island suburbs to use the LIRR to get to East Midtown, and West Midtown (via Penn Station), faster than city residents in large areas of New York City can get there on the subway.  

East Side Access is now forecast to cost $11.8 billion, or nearly three times the cost of the overpriced three-station Second Avenue subway New York City received in the bargain.  That doesn’t even include what should have been the most expensive part of the project – the completion of the 63rdStreet tunnel back in the early 1970s.   Amtrak says we have to replace the tunnels under the Hudson River because they are more than a century old.  The LIRR level of the 63rdStreet tunnel will be a half-century old before it is ever even used.

Improvements to the LIRR infrastructure (track, plant, signals). Expansions to shops and yards. Modernizing Jamaica Station. Improvements at Penn Station and Flatbush Avenue. 

I’m pretty sure that like the rail car fleet, the LIRR signals and other infrastructure are now younger, on average, than that of the New York City subway.  For one thing the Federal Railroad Administration required a commuter rail signal overhaul to provide “Positive Train Control.” 

https://www.masstransitmag.com/rail/railroad-signals-ptc-control-systems-and-products/article/21151220/metronorth-lirr-give-ptc-update

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s Metro-North Railroad and Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) remain on track to fully implement positive train control (PTC) by Dec. 31, 2020, which is the federally-mandated deadline to have the technology operational.

Although in fairness the subway system has had positive train control (the stop arms at red signals) since 1904.

144 new MUs for the New Haven Line. Improved signals and electrification (conversion to 60 cycles). Overhaul the current electric cars (current meaning 1968). Construction of high-level platforms. Rehabbing 100 of the 4400 series cars. 

130 new electric cars for the Penn Central

Just before the MTA was formed, the State of New York took over the previously private Long Island Railroad with the goal (according to then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller) of making it the “finest commuter rail line in the nation.”  But the commuter rail lines to the northern suburbs remained in private ownership, albeit with public subsidies, until MetroNorth was formed in 1982, under Governor Cuomo (Mario). 

The oldest Metro North passenger cars still in service date from that time, and are less than 40 years old, although there are locomotives in service that are older.   The MetroNorth fleet, like the LIRR fleet, is significantly younger than the NYC subway fleet. No wonder Mario Cuomo’s son (and also Governor) Andrew decided to live in the northern suburbs, not the city.

Constructing high level platforms and extending electrification on the Harlem Division from North White Plains to Brewster (28 miles). Building a 3rd track to serve as an express between Mount Vernon and North White Plains.

The high level platforms were built.  The electrification project was completed two years after MetroNorth took over, though the Harlem Line was later extended to Wassaic as a one-track diesel line. 

The fact that so little MetroNorth track in New York is not electric might explain the continuing presence of the old diesel locomotives.

The third track was added as far north as Crestwood station in 2004.

https://subwaynut.com/mnr/harlem_line/index.php

New equipment for the NY portion of the Erie-Lackawanna (Port Jervis Line); study the feasibility of direct service to Penn Station with the use of dual-powered locomotives. 

Since the opening of Secaucus Station in New Jersey in 1983, Port Jervis line riders have been able to go directly to Penn Station from a transfer there.  As part of the an earlier project, a rail connection was made to allow Morris and Essex line riders on New Jersey Transit to travel direct to Penn Station, the so-called Midtown Direct.  

This led to a big increase in property values in the New Jersey communities that benefitted, as many Baby Boomers exited places such as Park Slope in Brooklyn for places such as Maplewood in Essex County.  It may be that as part of the Gateway project, additional middle class and affluent NYC residents will be able to leave the city and state (avoiding high city taxes and inferior city public services) and move to other parts of New Jersey – and Rockland and Orange counties – and still get to Midtown faster than many city residents on the subway.

https://www.app.com/story/news/local/new-jersey/2015/08/12/direct-trains-penn-station-envisioned/31563269/

Airport development at Republic (Long Island) and Spring Valley in Rockland County. A new airport for northwest Westchester. The airport at Republic would reduce congestion at LGA and JFK by diverting private aircraft to this location. 

Republic Airport was in fact turned into a private plane airport.  

Home

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey took over Stewart Airport in Orange County as an additional northern airport, for passengers and freight.

https://www.swfny.com

Transportation Centers at Pearl River and Orangeburg (Rockland County) and Tarrytown and White Plains (Westchester).

Plans for the Suburbs — Phase II

Electrifying the LIRR Port Jefferson and Ronkonkoma branches to their terminals. Additional station and signal improvements. More MU cars and dual-powered locomotives. 

As noted, electrification reached Ronkonkoma on the Main Line, but was stalled by NIMBYs on the Port Jefferson line.  LIRR station, signal and train car purchases and replacements have otherwise continued.  Unlike on the subway, I doubt the LIRR infrastructure is older and in worse condition, on average, than when the MTA took it over.

Extending LIRR service from Flatbush Ave to a lower Manhattan terminal in the vicinity of Broad St. It would run under the east River to Canal Street and turn south under Manhattan either paralleling or using the Nassau St loop to Broad St. 

When East Side Access opens, the Atlantic Avenue branch of the LIRR will be cut back to a shuttle between that station in Downtown Brooklyn and Jamaica in Queens.  The equivalent of a subway that LIRR riders have to transfer to, but with LIRR levels of graft and featherbedding, and an extra fare for subway riders to keep the “subway people” off.

Meanwhile, with the Manhattan Bridge fully open to subway cars (for now) after two decades of shutdown due to bridge deterioration, just 10 or fewer trains per hour travel though the Montigue Tunnel, one-third of is capacity.  All of these travel up the BMT Broadway line as the R train.  None have connected from the Montigue Tunnel to the Nassau Loop – Broad Street, Fulton Street, Chambers Street stations — from the south since the temporary services implemented after 9/11.  Just saying.

Metro North:  Electrifying the Hudson Line to Peekskill. Modernizing signals. Additional cars.

The Hudson Line remains electrified only as far as Croton Harmon station and yard, perhaps another reason that ancient locomotives remain in service.  But with regard to passenger cars the NY Metro North fleet, like the LIRR fleet, got younger and more up to date under MTA ownership.  The subway fleet got older.

I would say that once East Side Access and the LIRR Third Track are completed, and certainly once Metro North to Penn Station is completed later, the commuter railroads will have gotten pretty much almost all the expansions they were promised by the MTA’s Program for Actionin 1968, and then more.  

New York City would have gotten relatively little in terms of subway expansions, and including the 3rdAvenue elevated, would have seen its rail transit infrastructure actually shrink.  

And with regard to the infrastructure and rail cars the MTA inherited, the commuter railroads and Staten Island Railroad have become relatively newer, more up to date and more reliable.  While the subway has become older and less reliable.  Back in the 1960s, I was told by a city native, it was much faster, and you could set your watch by it.

“Regional thinking” and state control has thus meant a shift of infrastructure investment from the city to the suburbs.  Not only from 1968 to 1990 when the city was declining and the suburbs were booming.  But also from 200 to 2019, when the suburbs were stagnant and the city was booming.  The city added 850,000 employed residents, while transit maintenance and service was cut and the capital plan to keep up with ongoing replacement essentially disappeared.  From 1950 to 1980, federal tax dollars collected in the cities built the suburbs while the cities declined.  From 1970 to 2020, as federal infrastructure funding declined, MTA spending priorities went the same way.  

Meanwhile national, state and local social policies have seen the cities, with their public spaces that newer suburbs don’t have (many are private communities or lack public sidewalks), as the perfect place to warehouse the addicted, mentally ill, and previously criminal.  And under the SUV-riding DeBlasio Administration, the subway has been seen as the perfect place within the city for the addicted, mentally ill, troubled and dangerous to sleep, urinate, defecate, and beg for money. 

Governor Cuomo, the New York State legislature, the MTA, and perhaps even the city’s real estate industry (that has several representatives on the MTA board) apparently believe that the non-poor should be pushed to overpay for Baby Boomers’ suburban houses, and move there.  So most of them can keep paying NY state taxes, and some of them can have a superior transit commute to Manhattan, to keep the value of Manhattan commercial real estate from collapse.   NYC is over.

That is the bright line message of where regional tax dollars, most collected in New York City, have gone with regard to infrastructure.  I don’t begrudge the suburbs these investments, though their economic value is reduced by exclusionary zoning that limits the population that can take advantage of them.  I do object to disinvestment in the city being something that happens as a matter of course, without anyone even talking about it.

Having the city “take over the subway” won’t help anything.  It isn’t “the MTA” that has left the city’s transit infrastructure in this situation.  It is the Governor and state legislature, including NYC’s political/union class.  The rest of the state would just keep the taxes and tolls paid by city residents, and spend it in the suburbs, anyway.  State legislators from the city would be bought off, as they already are, by ultra rich deals for public and contractor union members who live in the suburbs, but contribute to the campaigns of city politicians.

With the new federal infrastructure bill, moreover, any discussion of suburban rail services has to look beyond the Program for Actionto services for residents of, and funded by, the states of New Jersey and Connecticut.  

The MTA’s Metro North operates the New Haven Line in Connecticut using infrastructure and subsidies from that state.  For decades, however, Connecticut neglected its rail infrastructure even more than the MTA disinvested in the NYC subway.  In 1990 New Jersey’s transit system might have been the best in the region, but starting with Governor Whitman and getting worse under Governor Christie, it too was defunded and neglected.  

A substantial portion of the Connecticut New Haven Line, and New Jersey Transit Northeast Corridor line, are operated by Amtrak.  So is the rail tunnel from New Jersey to Penn Station. The massive investment in Amtrak proposed as part of the Federal Infrastructure Bill would no doubt benefit city residents by improving inter-city rail service.  But it would also provide a substantial renewal of the Connecticut and New Jersey commuter rail infrastructure, leapfrogging them further ahead of the New York City subway.  In particular the Gateway Project, the additional rail tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan, would allow Manhattan workers to move out of New York City to New Jersey without fear than an infrastructure collapse would strand them on the other side of the river, away from high-paid Manhattan jobs.

The 63rdStreet tunnel, built in the early 1970s, has two levels, one for the subway and one for the Long Island Railroad.  As part of the Gateway project, it wouldn’t cost much more to connect the Flushing line (#7 train) extension to an additional lower level of the new Hudson River Tunnel, extending the subway to a transfer point at Secaucus station.  The NYC Department of City Planning proposed this in the early 1990s.  In a meeting I attended, New Jersey transportation planners shot it down.  Suburban New Jerseyites didn’t want to share an inferior subway ride with the “subway people,” they said.

Meanwhile, the claim is made that under the new federal infrastructure bill, the MTA could get $10 billion.  

https://www.nydailynews.com/news/politics/us-elections-government/ny-infrastructure-congress-schumer-mta-20210730-3rymotsu4ze7lhfer427ik7zre-story.html

The MTA, which runs the city’s subway system, has never seen such a large influx in federal funding, Schumer said.

“There is more money for New York’s infrastructure in this bill than we have probably seen since the days of Peter Stuyvesant,” he said in a call with reporters, referencing the Dutch merchant who governed part of Manhattan in the 17th century, when it was called New Amsterdam.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) bashed the potential MTA funding in a sarcastic tweet on Tuesday. “I asked if Chuck is going to gold-plate every rail in the NYC subway system,” Cotton wrote.

Schumer was still eager to tout his push to benefit the beleaguered subway system, saying that “New York does quite well” in the package. “This is a really great day for New York,” he said.

Everyone is talking about the subway, to make it sound like the money would be going to the subway, but the $10 billion is for the entire MTA, not just the subway.

 MetroNorth to Penn Station is $1.53 billion just for the East Bronx, plus more to extend the Hudson Line down the West Side.  The East Side Access project for the Long Island Railroad is now expected to cost $11.8 billion, more than the entire proposed “historic” $10 billion federal investment in New York area transit, and any further over-runs would likely come out of that $10 billion too.

And that is $10 billion over how many years?   The MTA needs some $3-4 billion or more per year, at its inflated capital costs, just to keep up with ongoing normal replacement.  

In fact, it is spending $1.45 billion in FY 2021 on “reimbursable” operating expenditures paid for out of the capital budget, with borrowed and federal money – and has been doing so at that pace (inflation-adjusted) since the early 1990s.

https://new.mta.info/document/30186

“Non-reimbursable” operating costs total $14.4 billion (past II-3). Total cash operating expenditures are $15.85 billion (page II-6).  Going into debt just to keep the trains and buses running without older generations having to pay for it, and calling it investment.

For additional evidence that $10 billion won’t buy much here, the real estate industry and construction contractor-backed DeBlasio and Cuomo Administrations initially proposed a cost of $3 billion just to rebuild less than one mile of highway – the BQE viaduct under Brooklyn heights.

https://www.planetizen.com/news/2018/09/100737-much-hand-wringing-after-brooklyn-queens-expressway-replacement-plans-announced

With an $11 billion replacement tunnel as an alternative.  

https://www.planetizen.com/news/2020/02/108541-11-billion-estimated-cost-replacing-brooklyn-queens-expressway-tunnel

Governor Cuomo’s backward Airtrain from LaGuardia Airport is, by itself, now expected to cost $2.1 billion – for just for 1.5 miles of elevated rail from the airport to a parking garage.

Meanwhile, the DeBlasio Administration proposed spending $11 billion to replace Rikers Island with four new jails – at a per square foot cost of 10 times that of high rise luxury residential construction in Manhattan, the most costly construction in the United States.  Later reduced to $8.7 billion.

https://www.gothamgazette.com/city/8857-cost-closing-rikers-building-four-new-jails

And if you want to make the claim that investing future taxes (that will be collected in New York City) in city projects doesn’t make sense, given how overpriced capital projects are here, consider this.  Waste, fraud and abuse for some is extra jobs, easy jobs, overpaid jobs, early retirement, and rich unnecessary consultant contracts and legal fees for others.  For capital projects located in New York City, where do those others on the receiving end mostly live?  In the suburbs, that’s where.  

(With many others already retired to Florida with enriched pensions, or deceased after having benefitted from those enrichments for decades).

City residents may benefit from the (limited) actual construction, but suburbanites and Floridians benefit from the excess costs.   

With the backing of state legislatures from the city and suburbs alike.   Just check out which unions and contractor organizations backed Governor Cuomo, Mayor DeBlasio, and presumptive future Mayor Adams.  City residents will be lucky to get half the $10 billion, and to get anything in exchange for that is left at all.

Consider other parts of the new bi-partisan Federal Infrastructure bill. 

New York City has borrowed $billions to rebuild its water aging water system and improve its sewage treatment.  That debt is paid for in higher and higher water and sewer bills for New Yorkers.  

But the water and sewer infrastructure of the oldest suburbs, often financed by the federal government during the suburbanization era, is now aging as well.  The Federal Infrastructure bill will have the federal government borrow to solve that problem, with future New Yorkers paying for that too.

NYC might benefit from the replacement of its lead water service lines.  (We and the former owner of our Brooklyn rowhouse paid to replace ours back when we bought it). But in general the bill will use federal money, in part collected in cities, to provide suburbanites with water and sewer infrastructure replacement and upgrades that city residents have had to pay for themselves.  Again.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/07/28/fact-sheet-historic-bipartisan-infrastructure-deal/

Broadband internet is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, health care, and to stay connected. Yet, by one definition, more than 30 million Americans live in areas where there is no broadband infrastructure that provides minimally acceptable speeds – a particular problem in rural communities throughout the country. The deal’s $65 billion investment ensures every American has access to reliable high-speed internet with an historic investment in broadband infrastructure deployment, just as the federal government made a historic effort to provide electricity to every American nearly one hundred years ago.

Where I live we are not offered Verizon Fios – just DSL service on increasingly unreliable old copper wires.  The service is so slow that my wife’s employer had to provide her with a satellite connection so she could work at home during the pandemic. Her tech support said it was the worst internet service he had ever seen.  The price for this service goes up every year.  Our other option is the cable company, an unregulated monopoly on any internet service faster than DSL, with a reputation for unreliability and big annual fee increases.  That’s what we, and many other city residents, get and have to pay for — ourselves.

 Now perhaps we will also pay for extending more “reliable” high (er)-speed internet service to those living in widely dispersed areas.  Will they be getting the most up to date fiber-optic cables that city residents have been denied, or the equivalent of DSL?  Will it cost as much as we have to pay, or less? Are people living in cities included in the 30 million people who deserve a federally-financed internet upgrade?  Or will the cities have to pay so those elsewhere get deeply subsidized and far superior service, again? To induce people to abandon the cities, again.

I don’t begrudge small cities, and rural towns with 500 or more people, in states like Iowa and Ohio – or Upstate New York — receiving some communications infrastructure investment.   After all, according to presumptive next Mayor Eric Adams, that is where White people who are not rich should be harassed into going back to (even if they grew up here).  Why I object is subsidizing those who are better off that we are, and who nonetheless are allowed to resent us for draining them, without having that falsehood challenged – because it would make the city pols who sell us out look bad. Those who live on exurban estates where fiber optic cable would have to be extend a half-mile just to them. And those who live in rural areas where it would have to be extended even farther.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) bashed the potential MTA funding in a sarcastic tweet on Tuesday. “I asked if Chuck is going to gold-plate every rail in the NYC subway system,” Cotton wrote.

Schumer was still eager to tout his push to benefit the beleaguered subway system, saying that “New York does quite well” in the package. “This is a really great day for New York,” he said.

Did Schumer cut a deal with Cotton to have Cotton spout that nonsense to help with the fraud?

I’m not optimistic.  Residents of pre-1950 neighborhoods and cities have a 70 year history of being made to pay more in, getting less out, and getting lousy value for the public money the do get – to benefit better off public employees and contractors commuting in from elsewhere.  You see it in a 50-year history of MTA spending.  I wouldn’t expect the federal infrastructure bill to be any different, and won’t be upset if it collapses.  City Democrats only represent, and care about, fellow members of the political/union class and others working the system.  And Republicans, wanting lots of government for themselves but unwilling to pay for it, are happy to cut deals at city residents’ expense.