Friday, May 27, 2016

Why Subways in the Northeast Are So Troubled
New York Times
MAY 26, 2016

The unprecedented safety shutdown of Washington’s subway for a day in March laid bare the deteriorating conditions that created a crisis.

But the Metro, which opened four decades ago and shaped the Washington region, is not the only transit system in the Northeastern United States showing its age.

The subways in New York City and Boston, both more than half a century older than the system in Washington, need billions of dollars to replace aging infrastructure and to meet rising demand. All three cities, home to most of the nation’s busiest subways, are growing and attracting young people, who prefer mass transit but have become frustrated by delays.

As transit officials in Boston, New York and Washington focus on improving the subways, their efforts are being closely watched by planners and business groups who fear economic growth in the region could slow if the systems cannot keep up.

“These are mega-systems with mega-sized challenges, and there is not going to be a silver bullet,” said Adie Tomer, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution.

Frequent disruptions have left riders stranded on trains and scrambling to make it to work on time. In the Washington area, people are preparing for widespread closings while repairs are made. In New York, Brooklyn residents are alarmed by the possibility of a yearlong shutdown of the L subway tunnel to Manhattan. In Boston, the crowded Red Line is periodically upended by technical problems and other issues.

This month, President Obama tied the Metro’s problems to a broader lack of investment in infrastructure across the country, like the water pipes in Flint, Mich., and crumbling roads and bridges.

Washington Metro System Failed to Learn From Accidents, Report Finds MAY 3, 2016
“It is just one more example of the underinvestments that have been made,” Mr. Obama said at a news conference. “Look, the D.C. Metro historically has been a great strength of this region. But over time, we underinvested in maintenance and repair.”

The Federal Transit Administration found that public transit systems have a backlog of $86 billion in critical maintenance nationwide. Officials pushed for infrastructure funding on Capitol Hill recently as part of Infrastructure Week, an annual series of events to highlight the issue.

The Northeast’s three major subway systems, which have the most riders in the country along with Chicago’s, are similarly struggling with dilapidated equipment, funding concerns and knotty political dynamics. In New York and Boston, officials have encountered an additional hurdle: natural disasters.

Hurricane Sandy flooded New York’s subway in 2012, damaging several tunnels under the East River. The Williamsburg neighborhood in Brooklyn is reeling over plans for an 18-month shutdown for hurricane-related repairs to the L train tunnel. In Boston, an onslaught of snow in 2015 paralyzed the transit system and brought attention to problems at the regional network.

All three cities have seen population growth and remain top destinations for millennials, many of whom eschew driving a car. New York recently hit 8.5 million residents, while the Washington metropolitan area has grown to more than six million people and the Boston metropolitan area has topped 4.7 million.

With nearly six million trips each day and round-the-clock service, New York’s subway is the heavyweight. But the system, which opened in 1904, has become so packed that riders are exasperated by delays and overcrowding.

As Betsy Campbell rode a No. 1 train in Manhattan on a recent morning, she complained of increasingly unreliable trains. If service continues to deteriorate, she said, businesses might decide to move to other cities.

“It could get to the point where you just can’t get around and you can’t function efficiently like you need to,” said Ms. Campbell, who works at a foundation.

Last year, as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats, quarreled over whether the city should pay more for the subways, a train derailed in Brooklyn when a crumbling wall fell onto the tracks. The city ultimately increased its contribution to the $29 billion capital plan for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the state-run agency that operates subways, buses and commuter railroads.

The authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, said he understood commuters’ frustrations.

“We do feel their discomfort and pain, and we’re working as hard as we can to expand the capacity of the system and to deliver the service better,” Mr. Prendergast said in an interview.

The city’s first new subway station in a quarter-century opened on the Far West Side of Manhattan last year. The long-delayed Second Avenue subway is expected to open at the end of this year with three stations on the Upper East Side. Mr. de Blasio has proposed building a waterfront streetcar in Brooklyn and Queens while extending the city’s ferry system and adding express buses.

Boston’s subway, known as the T, opened in 1897, and is the nation’s oldest system. It now handles nearly 800,000 trips each day. The regional transit network has a $7 billion backlog of repairs that officials estimate could take more than two decades to eliminate.

“We have a system that is running on fumes,” said Joshua Ostroff, the partnerships director at Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group.

After the T’s problems in winter 2015, Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, pushed to create a fiscal control board to oversee the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. Riders are anxious about a fare increase of about 9.3 percent on average, set to take effect in July, and the fate of a proposal to extend the Green line. This month, officials decided to move forward with pared-down plans for the line, though the funding still needs to be assembled.

Washington’s subway opened to great fanfare in 1976, but maintenance has lagged. Since a series of safety failures, including a 2009 crash that killed nine people, ridership has declined. In March, officials abruptly shut down the subway to inspect troublesome electrical cables. Experts have criticized the structure of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, for which the federal government, the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia share responsibility.

One of the most vexing questions is how to pay to fix infrastructure. With federal transit funding essentially flat, many states and cities are grappling with how to cover improvements on their own.

Some experts have called for increasing the federal gasoline tax — which has remained the same since 1993 — or raising state gas taxes, sales taxes or tolls for highways and bridges. Many praise the so-called value-capture approach, which allows cities to pay for projects by recovering tax revenue generated from new development.

“You either pay now or pay later,” Richard A. White, acting president of the American Public Transportation Association, said. “The more you stick your head in the sand on this issue, the worse the problems are going to become.”

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