Most of those who will read this post know the financial issues with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Decades ago, funding for the agency’s capital plan was cut, and some capital funds were diverted to the operating budget as “reimbursable expenditures.” At the same time, effective fares were cut when the Metrocard was introduced, and current and – in particular former – MTA workers benefitted from a huge pension increase in 2000. The cost of capital construction contracts soared, due to pension increases for union construction workers and managers, and construction union pension underfunding, at about the same time. It was a political win for everyone – who is no longer around. The cost of all of this was borrowed or deferred, and today much of the money being paid to the MTA, in taxes, tolls and fares, is being sucked into the past.
As the years pass, meanwhile, major systems and components of the subway and commuter rail network continue to age, and eventually reach the point where they will either have to be replaced or start to fail and disrupt service more and more frequently. Perhaps to the point where entire lines have to be abandoned for years or decades, as two tracks on the Manhattan Bridge were. Or permanently, as the West Side Highway was. One of those systems is the signal system on the New York City subway, which is aging even as the cost of replacing the signaling on a line has exploded. The plan had been to gradually replace conventional railroad signaling with Communications Based Train Control (CBTC). But after decades of borrowing the MTA Capital plan came to a near halt after the Great Recession, and compared with the plans in place 17 years ago the MTA is way behind, without any hope, at recent prices, of ever being able to catch up. Can technology provide a way out?