The Roof is Caving In: Time to Find Funds for Infrastructure

A few days ago, at the West 181st Street station of the No. 1 subway line, the roof literally caved

A few days ago, at the West 181st Street station of the No. 1 subway line, the roof literally caved in. According to the MTA’s website:

“Due to a collapse of the brick façade from the ceiling above the tracks at the 181st Street station, 1 train service will remain suspended throughout the rest of today, Monday, August 17th, 2009. Service through this area will be suspended until further notice.  At approximately 10:30 p.m. Sunday, a section of the brick architectural façade fell 35 feet to the track bed below. A downtown 1 train was in the station, but did not sustain any major damage. No customer injuries were reported. The cause of the ceiling collapse at the 181st Street station is under investigation.”

To anyone who has ever been in that station, the cause of the collapse didn’t hold much mystery—the ceiling has been leaking for years and the collapse was completely predictable.  The station, over a century old, is a landmark which once featured chandeliers and an almost elegant décor that in recent decades has suffered relentless neglect.

Mayor Bloomberg used the ceiling collapse to make the critical political point that the MTA still does not have a capital budget, and that this near tragedy needs to be seen as a warning:

“It just goes to show the M.T.A. has for decades underfunded what they needed to do,” said Mr. Bloomberg at a news conference on Tuesday. “This could have killed somebody. Fortunately, it did not. It goes into the inconvenience class rather than in the class of something that could really leave a terrible, permanent scar. But nevertheless we have to have — and I have been saying this all along — a capital budget to maintain what we have.”

The MTA said that a repair of the roof was approved in 2008 and funded last week. My guess is that now they’ll need a little more money for this repair than they originally approved.  We should also add the cost of commuter delays and the funds spent on shuttle busses to the cost of the repair.

I have written before about the lack of capital funding for mass transit and the system’s over-reliance on fares for its operating budget. Since a lack of common sense seems to be a problem in Albany, I don’t know how we are going to find any political courage up there, but we really need to find a way to pay for the upkeep of this essential service.

There are three critical pieces of infrastructure that make a city as dense and complex as New York work. One is the water and sewage system, the second is the power system and the third is the subway system. It costs more to maintain these pieces of infrastructure in a city as built up as ours than it does in less crowded places. A lot of our infrastructure is old and in need of maintenance. Some of that infrastructure maintenance is well financed. Some, like our mass transit system, is not.

If you look at your water bill, you’ll notice that it keeps going up. The same is true of your gas and electric bill. Some of these increased charges are due to the costs of higher priced raw materials like fuels, but some of it pays the increased cost of infrastructure maintenance and expansion. In the case of mass transit, the logical way to fund the infrastructure of those willing to venture underground is to tax people driving in cars on the surface. That can be done with gasoline taxes, increased registration fees, tolls, and taxi surcharges. Charging higher mass transit fares makes little sense since it will simply encourage more people to drive and increase traffic on our already clogged roadways.

There are also less direct ways of funding mass transit, such as a commuter tax or a tax on businesses, and in some ways it doesn’t really matter where the money comes from, as long as it comes from somewhere. This requires political courage. Like the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz, our state government needs an injection of fortitude. The need for the courage to look ahead and to raise funds to secure our future is not limited to Albany. We could use some of that kind of thinking in Washington D.C., where new taxes have become the third rail of American politics.

One would like to think that the roof falling in would be a signal that change is needed. In China and Europe, government is investing in infrastructure at a ferocious rate. Here, we need to keep our money private to make sure we can drive our aging SUVs on deteriorating bridges to half empty shopping malls. I know that I’m simply showing my New Yorker’s bias, but it really might be time to rethink our approach. We caught a break up on 181st street this week. We might not be so lucky next time.

The Roof is Caving In: Time to Find Funds for Infrastructure