If there is one thing that virtually every public policy commentator and politician seems to believe, it is that more should be spent on infrastructure. And yet the direction of public policy has been in the exact opposite direction, with maintenance often unfunded or funded by debts that now soak up a large share of revenues dedicated to roads, bridges, airports, and transit, water and sewer systems. The trend has been at its worst in the Northeast. And as costs from the past, including pension funding and debt service, increased between FY 2004 and FY 2014, expenditures on the future – on the infrastructure – decreased when measured per $1,000 of personal income. It’s a trend that, according to anecdotal evidence, continues to this day, with consequences that continue to appear over time as the sold out future becomes the present.
In the 1990s there was an improving statistic that was as central to New York City’s turnaround as the decrease in the crime rate: the increase in mean distance between failures (MDBF) on the New York City subway. This figure, which measures how long the average subway car goes before it breaks down in service, is considered a key measure of the overall health of a railroad.
In any statistic there are random variations, in part due to temporary unusual conditions. That’s why a one-month increase or decrease in the crime rate, compared with a year earlier, or a one-year increase or decrease in school test scores, doesn’t really mean much. Once a trend is really established, however, it ought to be news. Which is why I was shocked to find, in the MTA Board materials, that MDBF has been falling for three years, not on a one-month basis but on a 12 month moving average basis. The decrease is now significant enough to affect service as people experience it, and may mark the start of a significant downward spiral for the system.
One of Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s best innovations, from a truth telling point of view, was the introduction of a table in NYC budget documents that shows how much different government functions actually cost us. By allocating pension, fringe benefit and debt service costs to the different agencies. And by deducting federal and state aid that merely passed through the city’s budget, allowing everyone to see the money the city actually has to pay for in local taxes and fees for different functions. With a New York Democratic Administration coming back in, with an assumed attitude that what the serfs don’t know they don’t deserve to know, I wondered how far it would dare to go to restore the prior level of obfuscation.
The answer is that the Bloomberg table remains for the proposed budget, if in a stripped down format. But the identical tables for the prior fiscal year or two, and the change between the prior fiscal year and the current one, and the current one and the budget proposal, have been removed. So there is no longer an easy way to see what is changing. And yet the budget documents from prior fiscal years are still up on the website of the city’s Office of Management and Budget. Someone is apparently counting on the unwillingness of the City Hall press core and various pundits to type the data from the tables – only available in PDF format — into a spreadsheet, check it once or twice, and examine the results. I did so, however, and found that according to the Mayor’s optimistic estimate of NYC residents’ personal income in FY 2017, it will have increased 14.5% (adjusted for inflation) from FY 2007. And according to the Mayor’s budget proposal, NYC spending will have increased 23.8%, and city-funded spending will have increased by 29.9%.
There are places in this country, generally rural areas, where people don’t get very much from state and local government other than schools, state police, and a road. Instead of public water and sewer, they have private wells and cesspools. Instead of municipal garbage pickup and disposal, they have to take their trash to the dump or pay someone else to do it. Instead of public libraries and parks, they have their own books and backyards. And, as in most of the country, there is no mass transit, no roads that are safe to bicycle or walk, not even many shared rides. Drive your own vehicle or be stranded.
New York City is, at least or based on its state and local tax burden and charges for services ought to be, the complete opposite of this. It has municipal water, sewer, solid waste pick-up, and mass transit. Highly developed at a high density, with most people having small or no private yards, city residents rely on public parks and related facilities for exercise and recreation. And the city has a network of public libraries, most within walking distance, even as most information shifts to the internet. One would, therefore, expect New York City’s public employment in these categories to be higher than the U.S. average. But how much higher? And is this fair value compared with what people could purchase themselves?
The demand for subway service is soaring. In the private sector, such soaring demand would probably lead to more service. Why not at the MTA, where peak hour subway service is more than 20 percent lower than it had been 60 years ago, as I showed here?
I plan to review a number of technical and financial issues below, but will state the underlying issue up front.
Who rides the subway? People that the political/union class, the New York State politicians and the interest groups that support them, think of as serfs. Younger generations, who have been made successively worse off in the economy, public policy and even family life. And who tend not to vote, and certainly do not challenge incumbent politicians by running for office in state and local elections. Immigrants, who can neither run nor vote. And the working poor, young and old, immigrant and native. Many of these people chose to move to New York City precisely so they could live a life that was not organized around automobiles. And the political/union class, whose members tend to drive everywhere and think of mass transit, walking and bicycling as beneath them, seek to make the serfs pay as much as possible with as little as possible in return, for transit and in general. Because they can. No so much up front, which might provoke a reaction, but in the future, which has a way of becoming the present.
After years of soaring ridership, the NYC subway has reached the level of patronage that it had immediately after WWII, before the onset of mass automobile ownership. According to the MTA…
in 2014 annual subway ridership was at the highest level since 1948, at 1.75 billion rides. At first rising ridership was an unmitigated benefit. Through the 1960s and 1970s, as the subway deteriorated, people only used it when they had to – to travel to and from work in Manhattan in the AM and PM peak. As annual ridership fell below 1 billion the system ran mostly empty the rest of the time, a cost without revenue – and a security risk for those still on the trains. As new people started moving to New York City precisely because they wanted to be able to use mass transit and walk to things rather than drive, however, off peak ridership recovered, filling the once empty trains and allowing the system to carry more people without more service.
In the past year or two, however, the system has hit the wall. Suddenly it has become severely overcrowded, causing increasing discomfort, delay and unreliability. Personally I find riding the subway to be a worse experience than it has been since the 1980s, when track fires, track failures, and trains out of service were common, doors kept breaking, and lights flickered on and off. For more than a year, therefore, I’ve been searching for evidence of what the level of subway service used to be, back when ridership was last this high. And now I may have found it, and can show that the subway system is squeezing more riders into fewer trains and subway cars. Subway riders, it seems, have it worse than 60 years ago.