New York City’s Crumbling Subway

Aid (good and bad) from New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority

If you are not aware, I want to move back to the US from France. But the list of locations I am interested in is a short one. So many things have changed…..a polite way of saying “degraded”. Yes, I do not drive so 80+ percent of the country is out for me unless I want to depend on Uber to get everywhere.

My first choice is the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Williamsburg is a neighborhood in the New York City borough of Brooklyn, bordering Greenpoint to the north; Bedford–Stuyvesant to the south; Bushwick, East Williamsburg, and Ridgewood, Queens to the east; and Fort Greene and the East River to the west. Since the late 1990s, Williamsburg has undergone gentrification but there are plenty of buildings still available at the right price.

Williamsburg is served by the BMT Canarsie Line…officially the L Train. Soometimes referred to as the 14th Street Line. Now the rest of the blog will introduce you to the L Train.

The L Train runs from Manhattan and crosses the River to Brooklyn. The tunnel got flooded in Hurricane Sandy and is the immediate culprit requiring to close tunnel for XX months.

But like the rest of the subway system: To many transit observers, the meltdown of New York City’s subways—and announcement by Governor Cuomo that the system is in a “state of emergency”—was only a matter of time. Here’s a century-old system, bearing the brunt of millions of passengers every day, that, for decades, went underinvested in by elected officials. Time has taken its toll, and now, to fix it entirely, experts say the entire rapid transit system—the most used in the Western world—would need to go offline.

The L train shutdown, is a microcosm of a larger issue: when Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the Canarsie Tunnel, it also exposed the fact that the tunnel hadn’t been properly maintained in years. And knowing that history is integral to understanding what this shutdown tells us about the larger state of New York’s infrastructure, and how it got this way.

Since the early 1920s, the subway system has been beset by chronic financial woes, and there’s never been a satisfactory political solution to it. The minute these subways opened, they exploded with people, and crowding. The subway system was originally built and operated by two private companies: the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT), and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company (BRT). Turns out the subways made a lot of money, and were wildly more popular than anyone anticipated. So the decision was made: “let’s greatly expand the system,”.

What were known as the Dual Contracts—Contracts #3 and #4, in 1913—were born, coordinated between the city, IRT, and the newly formed Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT). Most of the subway system that exists today comes from the Dual Contracts, including the L.

The L train, or what would become it, began operating in 1924 on an old steam-powered railway track after the Canarsie Tunnel was constructed underneath the East River. The “14th Street-Eastern District Line” was given the number 16, and ran from Sixth Avenue in Manhattan, to Williamsburg, then known as Brooklyn’s “Eastern District.” In 1928, it connected to an existing aboveground train in Canarsie, and, three years later, an extension to Eighth Avenue was added, creating the 10.3-mile-long line we know today. Finalized by the purchase of BMT in 1940, the city would eventually acquire the subway system, fusing the two private companies’ networks into one, web of trains.

With the city unable to pay for it anymore, Albany took over the subway system in 1968, forming the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which now oversees two commuter lines (the Metro-North and Long Island Rail Roads), the buses, and nine bridges and tunnels, making it the largest public transit authority in the country. As time passed, the price tag for fixing the subways grew, and the MTA’s capital budget just couldn’t keep pace. Now, even estimates of $100 billion—which on Thursday is what Governor Cuomo pledged to devote to the project—to bring everything up to a state of good repair might be low-balling it.

So of course, it caught up to us, with the recent epidemic of subway delays and closures being a symptom of that problem. Other world capitals, like London and Tokyo, continue to build new lines and update their systems in a timely manner, while New York has fallen largely behind. This is, perhaps, the most telling tale of this country’s infrastructure issue: what does it say about America when her most important financial and cultural capital can barely move?

It’s interesting: a lot of the coverage in the New York Times has been, ‘Well, maybe we did make a mistake by building the Second Avenue Subway, the 7 train extension, and the East River Access, and maybe we should’ve put more money in maintaining the signals.

Below is a exhibit highlighting problems:


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