An Underground Nightmare: Subway Cuts and Fare Hikes

Two inches of rain shuts down parts of the subway system. Track fires cause a panic among commuters, who rush for the exits. Over 160 token booths are to be eliminated. And they’re talking about raising fares twice in the next few years? What’s going on? Add a little graffiti to the trains and a harried straphanger could be forgiven for feeling like it’s 1978 all over again, when riding the trains was a daily exercise in survival.

Well, be prepared for the worst. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, facing an $11.3 billion gap in its capital program and a $436 million shortfall in its operating budget, is in dire straits. Not only is the agency planning to reduce service and jack up the costs of unlimited MetroCards, but some transit gurus expect that they’ll have to delay some of those much-hyped expansion dreams, like the Second Avenue subway and the East Side Access plan to extend the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal.

“If you don’t provide the money, you revert back to the past,” warned Jeffrey Zupan, senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association. “Go back to 1980, when subways were falling apart, trains were derailing and half the doors didn’t open.”

Back in those grim years, the city and state swallowed hard and raised taxes to help maintain and repair the crumbling system. But in the current crisis, most transit officials don’t expect tax increases or spending increases any time soon: Governor Pataki is back to a frugal diet after bingeing on spending for a few years, and Mayor Bloomberg—keeping an eye on his re-election prospects—doesn’t want to alienate voters with tax hikes.

“I don’t think that we get our fair share,” said Katherine Lapp, the straight-faced executive director of the M.T.A., when asked about federal funding for the agency at a recent hearing led by Assemblyman Richard Brodsky, a Westchester Democrat. She later lamented that when she meets with city and state officials to press for more money, “it’s not a warm reception.”

In the past, the agency has issued bonds—borrowing $22 billion for the last five-year capital plan—to keep them fiscally viable, but the interest on that debt is spiraling out of control. “They’ve maxed out their credit card,” says Beverly Dolinsky, the director of the N.Y.C. Transit Riders Council. “They can’t really bond anymore. You can only do that for so long before there comes a time when you have to pay it back.”

One of the agency’s hopes is that the federal government will ride to the rescue—M.T.A. officials expect $4.5 billion and 50 percent matching funds for the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access. “That’s unrealistic as we get less and less clout in Washington,” says Mr. Zupan. “Even if Kerry wins, with declining representation in Congress, it won’t get much better. We don’t have members of Congress in favorable positions …. I wouldn’t want to make the argument, ‘Elect Kerry and the Second Avenue subway will be built.’”

So, faced with those fiscal realities, the agency says that it’ll be forced to make big changes, cutting back late-night service from 20 minutes to a half hour, reducing dozens of bus routes and eliminating attendants at many token booths, while raising the price of unlimited MetroCards, increasing fares on commuter lines like Metro North and the LIRR and jacking up tolls on M.T.A.-operated bridges and tunnels. (It currently costs $3.50 per trip to use an M.T.A. tunnel or bridge.)

Against that grim backdrop, M.T.A. chairman Peter Kalikow has vowed to make the maintenance of the system a priority over funding the expansion projects. “He will not allow the system to be expanded at the expense of the core programs,” says Ms. Lapp. And most transit experts agree that repairing and restoring the system is of the highest importance.

No New Projects?

“The government of the city and state shouldn’t focus on building new things until they figure out how to maintain what they have,” says Richard Ravitch, a former M.T.A. chairman. “If it’s not funded, then the system will decline like it did in the 70’s. They’ve announced a lot of new projects, but the Second Avenue subway and the 7-line extension may have to be deferred.”

A year ago, commuters and politicos were drooling over three-dimensional renderings of a Second Avenue subway and its promise of whooshing commuters from East Harlem to the Lower East Side. Sure, it would take years to build and—hey, this is New York—there would be plenty of hurdles along the way, but the idea seemed so bright. It almost made a weary straphanger imagine a day when it would take one swipe through a turnstile to board a train on the Lower East Side and end up at J.F.K. Airport.

Now, although preliminary work has begun on those projects, the prospects have grown dimmer for their quick completion. “I don’t want to be the Cassandra, but they’ll throw over the expansion projects to keep things in good repair,” says one transit expert. “For now, they’re going to slow down the pace of these grand schemes—they’ll be on life support for the next few years.”

And it’s not just the giant projects that may be delayed. Several items in the 2000-2004 capital budget, including a police-radio system, signal-modernization projects and high-tech communication plans, were delayed due to technical glitches and some accidents. One of those projects was a plan to install communications equipment on the L train, enabling commuters to read displays telling them when the next train is due to arrive. Software problems, however, have delayed that project, which was due to be completed in December 2005. And a sophisticated computer system to aid in dispatching and traffic control experienced other software problems, prompting Transit Authority officials to pressure the contractor, Siemens, to “mitigate the delay … by any means necessary,” according to the agency’s Capital Program Oversight Committee.

The problems with Siemens, a German-based firm, prompted M.T.A. board member Barry Feinstein to growl, “It better work! It’s a big deal!” during a capital-budget meeting at the M.T.A.’s drab Madison Avenue headquarters on Oct. 13. When the contract was first awarded in May 2003, the runner-up firm, Telephonics, blasted the deal, claiming that the M.T.A. had relaxed bidding rules at the last minute, allowing overseas firms like Siemens to get a leg up on the contract.

And the capital program is still reeling from the 2 Broadway scandal, when the M.T.A. was scammed for millions by crooked contractors who were hired to work on the agency’s new headquarters. Although the story broke in 2002, new revelations keep emerging. The most recent headlines focused on the arrest of Edward Garafola, a soldier in the Gambino crime family and brother-in-law of Sammy (the Bull) Gravano, and several others in a scheme that ripped off the agency for $10 million through extortion, overbilling and kickbacks.

Despite the delays and the drama, the capital-construction program seems to have gained renewed respect through its president, Mysore Nagaraja. “They still have some kinks in the system, but Mysore’s doing a great job—he’s cleaned it up,” says one construction-industry veteran. “They have a responsible team in place who know how to keep an eye on things and put pressure on lazy contractors.”

The city’s transit system is at a crossroads, and its fate will be determined in the next few months. In December, barely a month after Election Day, the 23 members of the M.T.A. board will sit down and vote on a budget amid such dire circumstances. And no one expects any last-minute panaceas. “There’s no fairy godmother in the wings—that’s for sure,” said Mr. Ravitch.