The Trials and Tribulations of the MTA

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is a complex agency with a complex history. Its problems are long and complicated.

Here is a photograph of the F train. The F train line is currently experiencing CBTC updates on Eighth Avenue and the Culver Line. Photo Credit: Piotr Osmenda / Unsplash

Here is a photograph of the F train. The F train line is currently experiencing CBTC updates on Eighth Avenue and the Culver Line. Photo Credit: Piotr Osmenda / Unsplash

The MTA (Metropolitan Transit Agency) has been a source of frustration and anger for many New Yorkers who rely on it every single day. Constant delays, reroutes, dirty stations, money wasted on vanity projects, and safety are all concerns. The question is who to blame for all of this? Some blame the city, some blame the state, some blame the federal government, some blame the unions, and some pin the blame squarely on the MTA itself. The truth is that the blame cannot be pinned on only one entity. 

The MTA operates the public transportation system of the New York City metropolitan area, which includes New York City, Long Island, both middle and lower Hudson Valley, north and central New Jersey, three counties in western Connecticut, and five counties in northeastern Pennsylvania. The MTA is divided into five different agencies: the Long Island Rail Road, the Metro-North Railroad, Construction and Development, Bridges and Tunnels, and New York City Transit. 


The History of the MTA

The MTA did not always exist, and the state did not always have control over New York City’s transit. In fact, there used to be three different companies that were licensed by the city to build and operate subways. The first of these companies was the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT), which opened in 1904. There had been trains present in New York City before these three companies, but the IRT subway differed in that it was below ground, not above ground. The second train company to arise was the Brooklyn Rapid Transit company (BRT) in 1915, which connected Brooklyn and Manhattan. However, it fell into bankruptcy in 1923 and was bought by the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit company (BMT). The third prominent company was the Independent Rapid Transit Railroad (IND), but there was a key difference between the IND, IRT, and BMT; the IND was city-owned. The three companies were consolidated into one on June 1st, 1940, under the rule of the New York City Board of Transportation (NYCBOT). 

The reason the state runs the MTA instead of the city is due to fare stabilization. The governor at the time, Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller worked alongside his deputy, William J. Ronan, to circumvent Robert Moses, the man who was responsible for much of New York’s infrastructure. The two men framed the move as a way to preserve the 20¢ fare. The state controlled the tolls on the city’s bridges and tunnels, and so the subway fare could be subsidized with these tolls. 13 years later, the New York State Legislature created the New York City Transit Authority Authority (NYCTA), which is now known as the MTA. 

Construction Issues

The New York City transit system is plagued by a construction problem. Many of the train lines run on an outdated signal system from the 1930s, a significant contributing factor to train delays. The MTA has been working on outfitting train lines with an updated signal technology, called Communications-Based Train Control (CBTC) since 1991. In 1997, the MTA claimed that every line would be computerized by 2017, and in 2005, they pushed that date to 2045.  A computerized train line involves CBTC, where everything is controlled digitally. Right now, CBTC is only available on two train lines, the L and the 7, with the L receiving it in 2009 and the 7 receiving it in 2019. It took a decade for the CBTC project to finish on the L, and eight years for the 7.  The New York City subway system is the second oldest in the world, after London, and the infrastructure is outdated. The process to install CBTC is very time-consuming, with the agency having to buy new trains, new radios, and upgrading old trains with new technology.  The MTA is also planning to introduce CBTC on the Culver Line on the F line, the A, C, and E lines on Eighth Avenue, and on the Queens Boulevard Line on the E, F, M, and R. The CBTC project has already seen some setbacks, being delayed for two years, from opening in 2022 to 2024, due to the contractor, Siemens, manufacturing parts with the wrong size. 

There have been three high profile construction projects for the MTA: East Side Access, the Second Avenue Subway, and the 7 Train Extension. East Side Access is a project to connect the Long Island Rail Road in Queens, the Jamaica Terminal, to the Grand Central Terminal. The decision to complete the project was made in 1998, construction started in 2007, and full service to Grand Central started in 2023. Not only did this project take 22 years to complete, but it cost $16.6 billion

An accountant, when reviewing the budget for the project, found that 900 workers were being paid to dig deep caverns for the platforms of the 3.5 mile tunnel,despite the task requiring only 700 workers.. The 200 extra people were being paid $1000 per day to do nothing. This information was discovered in 2010, and undisclosed to the public until now. This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exorbitant spending.

In 1920, Daniel L. Turner, chief engineer at the New York Public Service Commission, created an in-depth transit plan which made the first mention of the Second Avenue Subway. In 1929, the NYCDOT started to allocate funds to a new iteration of the project, one that spanned from Houston Street to the Harlem River, but it was pushed back due to the Great Depression. Due to the Great Depression, the city prioritized finishing the IND subway, as the Second Avenue Subway was deemed too expensive. In 1954, the Second Avenue Subway was proposed once more, but Robert Moses prevented funds from being used on the subway, preferring it to go to his pet projects, specifically expressways in the Bronx, Queens, and Brooklyn. Shortly after the MTA was founded in 1965, a new iteration of the Second Avenue Subway was created. This version would start on 34th Street and continue onto the Bronx. However, it ended with a station on 103rd, when the city ran out of funds to complete the project.

Today’s  Second Avenue Subway dates back  to 1988, when a group of planners recommended building a version of the subway that would span from East 63rd Street to 125th Street and extend into the Bronx. To lower costs, the full project was split into four phases, of which only phase 1 has been completed. Phase 1 involved extending the Q Train to 96th Street, building three stations, 72nd Street, 86th Street, and 96th Street. The approximate 1.67 mile extension opened in 2017 and cost $4.6 billion, or $5.6 billion adjusted for inflation. Phase 1 is the most expensive subway built in the world. There is true concern over if the other phases will even be built, and if this is the last subway project that will be built in New York City.

The 7 Train Extension to 34th Street-Hudson Yard opened in 2015, and was the first new subway station built in New York City since 1989. It also cost $2.4 billion. Alongside the East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway projects, the No.7 Extension also faced a long construction process, with it beginning construction in 2007 and opening in 2015. 

Funding Issues

New York City’s subway system is over a century old; however, the MTA’s budget for subway maintenance has barely increased, from 1992 to 2017. Through diverting tax revenue and demanding large payments for things like financial advice, I.T help, $1.5 billion has been stripped from the MTA. The MTA pays for new subway cars, expanding subway stations, increasing ADA accessibility, and other improvements by borrowing money from issuing tax-exempt bonds, instead of getting funding from the city and state.

In the 1970s, the city went bankrupt, which was reflected by the quality of the subways. The stations were dirty, crime ridden, and not working properly. To combat these issues, the officials invested what would be $50 billion today into the system. As a result, trains moved 10 times faster and riders returned in droves. However, Mayor Giuliani’s administration pulled back $400 million in funding, setting a trend. Today, the city’s contributions to the MTA’s operations have dropped by 75 percent compared to 1990.

The state also contributed to the fall of the MTA. From 1995 to 2006, Governor Pataki eliminated subsidies for the MTA, leading the agency to depend entirely on fares, tolls, and fees earmarked for transit, a move that was deemed unsustainable by the State Comptroller at the time, Herman Carl McCall. Governor Pataki also set a trend of redirecting revenue from taxes that was originally intended for transit. When he cut the state income tax, he paid for it by taking $200 million that was set for transit. His three successors, Eliot Spitzer, David Paterson, and Andrew Cuomo, followed suit, leading to $850 million being cut. As a result, the MTA derived 42.1% of its revenue from fares in 2019, which is unseen in other parts of North America and the world.

In 2000, Bears Stearns, an investment bank, proposed a deal to help alleviate the MTA’s funding problems. The MTA would refinance $12 billion of its debt, and it would get a large influx of cash without having to pay it back for years. According to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli, the MTA’s outstanding long-term debt was $11,4 billion in 2000, $42.3 billion in 2022, and is expected to be $56.7 billion in 2028. The MTA also expects 17.9% of its revenue to go to debt payments in 2023. 

The MTA is seen as a ‘piggy bank’  by the city and state according to Richard L. Brodsky, a former member of the New York State Assembly. Over 15 years, the agency has had to pay $328 million in bond assurance fees. The MTA would have not had to pay the bond assurance fees if it were not for Governor Pataki and the state agreeing to Bears Stearns’ deal in the first place. And in 2016, Governor Cuomo forced the MTA to send $5 million to three state-run ski resorts that were struggling financially due to warm winter temperatures.  According to a report by Kenneth Lovett, the MTA owed this money to the state, and the Cuomo Administration asked the MTA to send that money to these ski resorts.

The MTA also has made many concessions to its main labor union despite budget shortfalls and financial crises. The three deals made between 2009 and 2017 forced the MTA to take money from other parts of its budget. Union rules require the MTA to staff each train with two workers, one to drive and the other to oversee boarding. New York City is unique in this rule, as every other transit system in the world has only one worker on the train, and according to an internal MTA analysis, the agency would save almost $200 million a year by following this standard.

The MTA is not the only one at fault when it comes to funding and debt issues. Years of cuts by the city and state have led the MTA to depend on unstable and unsustainable funding sources like fares and bonds. While the MTA also needs to fix problems concerning its handling of money, the city and state also need to fund this public agency.

Looking Towards the Future 

All of these problems need to be addressed in order for the MTA and New York City to prosper. The subway system is a big part of why New York City is the way it is. New Yorkers are currently able to travel around the city without relying on automobiles, which makes New York City less reliant on fossil fuels. The deterioration of the subway system happened because of MTA mismanagement, and neglect from the city and the state. It is not solely the MTA’s fault, the city’s fault, or the state’s fault. This is a complex situation with layers of problems. If the MTA is to improve, it needs to cut middle managers, reduce the amount of outside companies, do a full audit, and be fully transparent. The MTA also needs to be fully funded by the city and state; it cannot just rely on fares alone for funding. 

The question is who to blame for all of this? Some blame the city, some blame the state, some blame the federal government, some blame the unions, and some pin the blame squarely on the MTA itself. The truth is that the blame cannot be pinned on only one entity.