Category Archives: New York City



It’s not just the rising price of a subway ride that frustrates New Yorkers. There’s also the soaring cost of maintaining and expanding the system, which political leaders and advocates say the MTA needs to better control. Transit Reporter Jose Martinez has more.

They’re the diamonds of the city’s subway: three sparkling stations along Second Avenue.

They are priced like gems, too; the Second Avenue line is the priciest subway extension on the planet.

“We don’t need vaulted ceilings at the Second Avenue Subway,” said Assemblyman Bobby Carroll. “We don’t need public art installations. We need new signals, we need new subway cars.”

On Monday, elected officials and transit advocates blasted the MTA for what they called runaway costs on big construction projects.

The not-even two-mile-long Second Avenue line opened on New Year’s Day at a cost of nearly $4.5 billion, a price dwarfing similar transit projects in London and Paris.

“Aside from the excessive amount of time it cost to do it, it cost between four and ten times as much as a comparable subway would cost in comparable, well-developed modern cities,” said David Bragdon with the Transit Center.

Those gathered at City Hall called on MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to create an independent panel to study why the agency’s capital costs are so high.

“Let’s make sure the MTA is spending the money it has wisely,” said State Senator Michael Gianaris. “It is clearly not doing that right now.”

The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway cost $2.7 billion per mile. But a new line is being built for the Paris Metro at a cost of just $370 million a mile.

That’s just a start. With the MTA planning to eventually stretch the Second Avenue Subway from 96th Street into Harlem, the politicians and advocates say it’s important to control those costs now.

“We can’t wait any long for cost reform at the MTA,” said Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal.

The MTA claims it is working to contain costs, saying in a statement: “New York has some of the highest construction costs across all industries — which is exactly why the MTA’s new senior management team is laser-focused on this issue.”

The MTA adds it is constantly studying “best practices” to cut costs and that it already “aggressively” holds contractors accountable for delays.

But the cost of a new Long Island Rail Road terminal beneath Grand Central has been like a runaway train.

The MTA now projects the East Side Access project will cost $10.2 billion — about $6 billion more than the original budget.


NYC Pols Want MTA to Be More Transparent About Its Spending

Two New York City Council members are calling on Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joe Lhota to set up an independent commission to examine the MTA’s runaway costs as the city and state continue to spar over who should fund a plan to fix the city’s subway system.

In August, Manhattan Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal and Upper Manhattan Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, chairman of the Council’s Transportation Committee, wrote a letter to Lhota requesting the creation of the commission. They said that the MTA has not responded to their request and that they are looking to stress the urgency of the situation.

They noted that independent research has concluded that the MTA has the highest transit construction costs in the world, spending many more times than other cities for similar projects.

“If we really want to have a system that represents the 21st century, if we really want to have a system that’s accessible for everyone, we really wanna have a system that gets out to transit deserts such as far out in Queens and northern Manhattan and the Bronx, then what we need is for the MTA to figure out why it spends four to 10 times more money than any other city,” Rosenthal said.

“As it starts to investigate that issue … their costs will come down and then we can have a 21st century transit system and then we can have a transit system where everyone, where everyone — even if you’re in a wheelchair, even if you use a walker — where everyone can ride the subway to get to work and get home,” she continued.

The Council members said that the request comes amid the MTA’s request that the city pay half of the $836 million short-term renewal project to fix the city’s subway system.

The Council members noted that while Paris was able to build a new line for $370 million, for example, the first phase of the Second Avenue subway cost $2.7 billion per mile.

Rodriguez also noted that the Mario Cuomo Bridge, for example, was built on time.

“This is about … our children and for the new generation,” he said. “We cannot leave New York City behind. We are taking about 8.5 million New Yorkers. Only 1.4 million have cars. And even most of those who have cars, they live in transportation deserts. They live in places where they have to walk 50 blocks.”

The mayor and the governor have clashed in the last few months over who is responsible for the city’s crumbling subway system.

At the end of July, Lhota unveiled a subway turnaround plan that included the short-term plan, which centers on signal and track maintenance, car reliability, system safety and cleanliness and customer communications. The $8 billion second phase is composed of long-term improvements, including better subway cars, updated communications technology and a new signal system.

Lhota proposed that the city and state split the cost of the short-term plan but de Blasio has refused, maintaining that the money to fund the plan is already in the governor’s budget.

The Council members and transit advocates in attendance, including John Raskin of the Riders Alliance, also criticized New York City Transit’s Enhanced Station Initiative, referencing the service problems on the B, D, F and M lines on Monday morning.

State Senator Michael Gianaris, who is the deputy minority leader, reiterated that the MTA is run by the state, not the city.

“The city does not control the MTA. The state controls the MTA … I don’t begrudge the city for saying, ‘I don’t trust the MTA to come take our city money ‘ … This is the state’s responsibility and the state needs to find a solution for it,” Gianaris said.

He noted that the mayor and others proposed the millionaires tax, which would tax wealthy residents to finance subway repairs and reduced fares for low-income New Yorkers. Cuomo, for his part, is currently studying a congestion pricing plan to tackle the problem.

“Let’s get the state on the ball and figure out what the answer is because the state is providing precious few answers,” he continued. “They are the ones that have to step in and are failing.”

The MTA said that the study that the Council members are calling for was already done by the MTA with a blue ribbon panel in 2008. One recommendation made by the panel, the agency said, is bonding changes that are now in use, including on the Long Island Rail Road expansion project, a project that seeks to add a 9.8 mile-third track to the Main Line between Floral Park and Hicksville.

In a statement, Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesman, said that the MTA studies best practices and takes “aggressive steps” to build major projects while reducing costs, with approaches such as design-build contracting and holding contractors accountable for delays.

“New York has some of the highest construction costs across all industries — which is exactly why the MTA’s new senior management team is laser-focused on this issue,” Tarek said. “And while ignoring the facts can garner headlines, the fact is that there has been a study on this topic — a 2008 blue ribbon panel on construction at the MTA made a series of recommendations that are paying off.”

Regular ‘ol Monday on Subway

Just now on the greatest Subway in the World

Signal problems at 42nd Street and Bryant Park in Manhattan are disrupting subway service on several lines.

Subway riders who use the A, C, D, E, F, G and M trains should expect delays.

There is no B train service between Norwood-205th Street and Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue in both directions.

M trains also aren’t running between Forest Hills-71st Avenue and Broadway Junction.

Southbound D trains are stopping along the C line from 59th Street-Columbus Circle to West 4th Street-Washington Square via the F line to Coney Island-Stillwell Avenue.

Northbound D trains are stopping along the A line from West 4th Street-Washington Square to 59th Street-Columbus Circle.

Southbound F trains are stopping along the E line from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to West 4th Street-Washington Square.

Some southbound F trains are stopping along the E line from Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue to Queens Plaza then on the G line to Bergen Street.

For the latest updates visit the MTA website.

MTA unveils new Bay Ridge Avenue R station


The Bay Ridge Avenue train station that was once a dark and dreary stop along the R line has completed its six-month renovations, the MTA announced Friday.

The 102-year-old station was closed in April so the agency could bring it into the modern age with countdown clocks at all three entrances, Wi-Fi, digital displays, USB ports and an enhanced security system.

Additionally, new lighting, handrails and stair treads have been installed, as have wayfinding floor tiles for the visually impaired.

New tile artwork by Katy Fischer has also been added to the station and pays homage to the area’s Native American, Dutch and Colonial roots.

The Bay Ridge station unveiling is the second of 33 stations across the city that will undergo accelerated renovations and comes just weeks after the 53rd Street R train station reopened.

The 77th Street and Bay Ridge-95th Street R stations are next on the list for renovations to make them ADA-accessible via the MTA’s Capital Plan. In total, the plan includes more than $125 million to make the R line accessible between 2015 and 2019.

“This station opening is a huge benefit for Bay Ridge,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said. “We are also proud to announce that our newly amended Capital Plan now includes new funding for four fully accessible, ADA-compliant stations in Bay Ridge, which will deliver a level of accessibility to this neighborhood that has never existed before.”

The Bay Ridge Avenue work was done as part of the Enhanced Station Initiative, a design-build contract that enables a single team to take on both the design and construction work to ensure work is completed as quick as possible. All 33 stations will be done under this initiative.

“Greater investment in our mass transit infrastructure is critically needed across our borough to advance the safety and reliability of service, and this design enhancement campaign is a step toward that larger imperative,” said Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams.

The NYC subway has an accessibility problem—can it be fixed?

Two class-action lawsuits have thrown the subway system’s lack of wheelchair accessibility into sharp relief

Every morning, like many New Yorkers, Chris Pangilinan checks his phone to see if there will be interruptions to his subway commute. There is a mixed bag of possibilities commuters have come to dread: track work, track fires, signal problems, injuries, overcrowded trains, or just unexplained delays.

But Pangilinan’s main concern doesn’t make that list. As he is getting ready to leave for work, he’s thinking about elevators.

As a wheelchair user, elevator accessibility on the subway determines Pangilinan’s movement throughout the city every single day. Pangilinan works near a subway station with an elevator, Bowling Green, and lives near elevator stations at Jay Street-MetroTech and Borough Hall, in Brooklyn. But about once a month, he faces another challenge: One of the elevators between those three stations doesn’t work.

“I’ll arrive to a station and realize the elevator broke while I was on the train, or it just wasn’t reported [on the MTA website],” Pangilinan explains. “I stare at the elevator like an idiot for a couple minutes. I realize it’s broken. I go to the stairs, wait for another train to arrive, and hopefully I can make eye contact with someone who looks strong enough to carry my wheelchair while I walk up. When I get to the top, I get back into my chair, and then hope the next elevator is working.”

“It takes a ton of energy,” he continues. “My job needs to be near an elevator, or hopefully two, and I have to live near two elevators.”

This is a major challenge, considering roughly 80 percent of the city’s subway stations —355 out of 472 stops—are inaccessible to him, as well as the estimated hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who use wheelchairs or have other mobility impairments.

In April, the nonprofit Disability Rights Advocates filed two class-action lawsuits against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one of which alleges that New Yorkers with mobility impairments are “blatantly denied” access to a high number of subway stations. The other claims the MTA does an “abysmal” job in its management of existing elevators. (MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz told Curbed the agency cannot comment on pending litigation.)

The MTA, the lawsuits note, is “the most inaccessible major transportation system in the nation.” But how did it get to this point?

There are a mess of factors that have created such a dire state of affairs for New Yorkers with mobility issues. Age, of course, is one; many of the subway system’s stations are more than a century old, and were built well before the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in all areas of public life, was passed in 1990. (Elevators also were not commonplace in station design in the subway’s early years.)

The early 20th century was also a time when the needs of people with disabilities were not widely considered, or indeed, were even hidden from public life—think President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s efforts to keep his wheelchair hidden. It wasn’t until after the World War I and World War II, with many returning veterans with disabilities, that public sentiment began to change. By that point, though, the NYC subway was already on the decline. Decades of deferred maintenance and budget crises haven’t helped, either.

Then there’s simply a lack of political will, and lack of prioritization from the agency itself, at a time when both politicians and the MTA have been under fire for an overall decline in service. Pangilinan, who previously worked with the MTA on issues of subway accessibility, says that the agency lacks “the structure, resources, or accountability within the bureaucracy to make good change happen.” (He’s now the program director at TransitCenter, a New York-based transit advocacy group, as well as a plaintiff in the suit against the MTA.)

“The issue of accessibility often gets lost [in discussions of subway maintenance],” says Michelle Caiola, director of litigation at the Disability Rights Advocates. “Unless you’re affected, or someone close to you is affected by some kind of mobility disability, you don’t think about it as much.”

Indeed, able-bodied New Yorkers may have a different attitude when it comes to subway elevators: avoid them at all costs. They’re often slow, dirty, and can feel rickety and unsafe.

And all signs point to the MTA letting the service fall into decline. A recent audit by the New York City comptroller’s office surveyed 65 elevators and escalators over an 18-month period, and found that the MTA did not perform all scheduled preventive maintenance on nearly 80 percent of the sampled escalators and elevators. Additionally, one third of the MTA’s scheduled preventive maintenance assignments in the sample were completed late, if at all. And on top of that, the MTA does not systematically track whether and how quickly all of the defects found in its elevators and escalators are corrected.

The MTA has also struggled to adapt its existing infrastructure so that it complies with the ADA. Making stations accessible is no easy feat; it requires more than a year of work to obtain sidewalk space, reroute utilities, and reconstruct station components. At some stations, it can be nearly physically impossible due to a lack of space on platforms to install an ADA-compliant elevator, which can cost the MTA upwards of $10 million.

The agency is currently working on satisfying a 1994 agreement with disability advocates that gave the MTA until 2020 to identify busy, “key” stations (such as 34th St–Herald Sq, 125 St, and 14 St–Union Sq) and retrofit them for ADA compliance. Though the agency is on track to retrofit 100 stations by the deadline, disability rights activists say that at this rate, the system will not reach 100 percent accessibility until roughly the year 2100. Beyond those 100 stations, the MTA invested in an additional 31 “non-key” stations to install elevators, and plans to invest in another 11 non-key stations in the next few years.

The MTA’s efforts at compliance have also led to missteps. As pressure to accommodate passengers with disabilities increased, the agency invested in making the bus system more accessible, and also offered paratransit services like Access-a-Ride, which provides door-to-door service to disabled New Yorkers.

But “it turns out that was a horrendously bad decision,” Howard Roberts, a former top official at the MTA told the Wall Street Journal in 2016. “It probably has turned out to be … a hundred times more expensive to go with buses and paratransit than it would have been to bite the bullet and simply rehabilitate the stations and put elevators in.”

Jaqi Cohen, a coordinator with the Straphangers Campaign, says that buses and paratransit do not compare to the subway in terms of frequency of service, or its relative speed in bringing passengers across the five boroughs.

“I hear from [Access-a-Ride] riders who have been stuck in a car for three or four hours waiting to get to their destination, getting picked up late, and carpools that can take up to six hours,” she explains. Access-a-Ride, operated by private carriers in contract with the city, also requires a reservation made 24 hours in advance. Bus service, while more flexible and completely accessible, “is notoriously slow and unreliable,” Cohen says.

While MTA touts buses and Access-a-Ride as the alternative to inaccessible subway systems, “it’s a separate but equal kind of argument,” according to Mel Plaut, a program analyst with TransitCenter.

This summer, TransitCenter released Access Denied, a report outlining both short- and long-term accessibility solutions for New York’s subway system. The report challenges the MTA’s notion that old age stands in the way of retrofitting—both the Boston T and Chicago CTA, both century-old transit systems, have concrete plans to reach 100 percent accessibility. (It’s worth mentioning that neither system is as large as New York’s, nor does either one run 24/7 like the MTA.)

“These plans and improvements were only possible because elected leaders and senior agency management took a firm position to make accessibility a priority and hold their agencies accountable,” the report states. Boston’s plan, put in place after a lawsuit, does not outline a specific time frame for completion, while Chicago’s plan is due to be implemented over 20 years.

Ortiz, the MTA spokesperson, told Curbed that “currently 117 stations in the transit system are accessible, serving more than 44 percent of subway ridership, and we will continue to make more stations accessible.” Additionally, the 2015-19 capital budget now allocates $740 million for ADA accessibility and $334 million to replace existing elevators and escalators. That funding is enough to make an additional 19 stations accessible, according to Ortiz.

But transit advocates don’t believe that MTA leadership or local politicians have taken a firm enough position on accessibility, and lack both a concrete plan and an allocated budget to make the system fully accessible.

“If senior leadership and the governor prioritized this, it would be part of the culture,” says Plaut. “The political will comes first and everything else follows.”

There are also the “maddening” examples, as Plaut calls it, of subway stations that have been refurbished in recent years, and yet somehow completely miss the mark. There’s a $4 million ramp at the Mets–Willets Point stadium—added during a 2009 refurbishment—that’s only open during sporting events.

Perhaps most head-scratching is the $32 million station rehab of the highest subway station in the world at Brooklyn’s Smith–9th Street. The platforms are located nearly 88 feet above street level, and yet when the station was rehabbed in 2013, it was outfitted with some ADA-required components—handrails, stair risers, etc.—but not elevators that could take passengers in wheelchairs, those with impairments, or with strollers to the platform. The MTA again blamed costs, as well as structural concerns, for the lack of access.

Brand-new stations like the Second Avenue Subway and Hudson Yards offer more opportunity to get it right, and are fully designed to meet ADA requirements. But it isn’t always easy—remember the drama and holdups of the inclined elevators at the 34th Street 7 stop?

“We live in an elevator city,” says Plaut. “It’s something all other building owners have figured out to do. Why can’t the MTA follow the lead on that?”

Perhaps most maddening is how much the conversation persists, nearly 30 years after the passage of the ADA. “A lot of advocates have become exhausted fighting for this,” Plaut notes. “But we’re at a critical moment where the MTA is already thinking about significant changes. It would be a big missed opportunity for the MTA to fix subway operations and not address the accessibility issue, and rather kick it down the road for the next generation to deal with.”

New York State; it’s Railroads, Tourism, History

There are two important WebSites for New York State. New York State is somewhat of a tourist site. It opens with a picture of the Saratoga Race Track. Then sections on New York City, followed by Cooperstown, and the Adirondacks. Followed by the Catskill Mountains and the Erie (Barge) Canal. Then Albany, Schenectady, Utica and Syracuse. Finally an article on the Hudson Valley.

The second WebSite is all about New York Railroads and the NY Central Railroad.

This WebSite starts out with short stories on the many historic railroads of New York State. It concludes with many of the New York Central properties.

We hope you enjoy both WebSites.

2nd Avenue Subway Scandal Shows The MTA Needs Major Reform


Now New Yorkers know why the Q train slows to a crawl when it hits the new Second Avenue tracks: It’s not safe to go full speed.

Oversight reports submitted to the feds tell the sorry tale: In the rush to meet Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s New Year’s Day deadline for opening the Second Avenue subway to the public, the MTA skipped final safety testing.

When the station opened for Cuomo’s glitzy New Year’s Eve ribbon-cutting, the fire alarm system was still being tested and some 17,000 defects hadn’t been fixed.

With 7,000 repairs still to go, the line is operating under a temporary safety certificate until at least November.

Unbelievable. But why didn’t the MTA tell Cuomo: “Sorry, meeting your deadline is just crazy”?

“Any suggestion that safety was at all compromised to the deadline to open is patently false,” MTA spokesman John McCarthy told the New York Times, which broke the story.

Fine: The MTA has posted fire watches along the three-station line to keep its nearly 176,000 daily passengers safe. But those inspectors aren’t cheap, and it costs more to do the work with the line operating, too.

We expect that current MTA leadership — No. 1 Joe Lhota and No. 2 Pat Foye — would be willing and able to stand up to the governor. But that’s no guarantee that future execs will say “no” to future govs.

The MTA plainly needs some permanent reform to guarantee a lot more transparency and public truth-telling.

After all, the entire subway system is still downgraded because the agency stretched out its inspection and maintenance cycles after Hurricane Sandy — and never returned to normal in the five years afterward.

Even with Mayor Bill de Blasio naming four members of the MTA board, that damning information somehow never made it to the public until the deferred maintenance caused a systemwide crisis.

De Blasio and Cuomo are still fighting about how to get new money to the agency — but it plainly needs some deeper repairs.

Video Screens Will Soon Start Forcing Ads On Captive Subway Riders

There comes a moment in every New Yorker’s life in which they have to decide if this city is worth the fight. Sometimes, it’s a rent increase. Other times, it’s a lost job, a broken relationship, or a 40-word Joan Didion sentence. Well, friends, my moment has come—the MTA announced today they’ll be installing digital screens in subway cars to display ads. Soon, you could be trapped in that terrible tunnel approaching the Manhattan Bridge forced to watch an unending loop of ads, just like that episode of Black Mirror where the dude from Get Out tries to keep the chick from Downton Abbey out of the porn industry, and just contemplating this miserable future is making anxiety hives bubble on my wrist.

Today the MTA announced a partnership with OUTFRONT Media to install over 9,500 digital screens “that provide both advertising and customer communications” above and inside subway stations and on subway platforms. Some of these screens will provide information for commuters, much like the touchscreen maps already available at many subway stations. Others will replace paper ads, making it harder for budding artists to add their own decoration.


Mermaid, Drag Queen And Oracle To Compete For Miss Subways Title

WILLIAMSBURG, BROOKLYN — A mermaid, a drag queen tour guide and an F train oracle will compete on Thursday to be named Miss Subways 2017.

The City Reliquary Museum in Williamsburg will resurrect the historic New York City Subways Pageant on Thursday evening when a panel of celebrity judges will decide who best represents the MTA.

“In a night of performances spanning the classy, the trashy, the weird, and the whimsical, contestants will demonstrate their love for their subway line of choice,” organizers wrote on the museum website.

Contestants include Glace Chase, who describes herself as New York City’s only drag queen tour guide, Laura Von Holt, a mermaid with a fondness for the mythological Second Avenue Subway, and Rebecca Leib, the self-proclaimed F Train Oracle who will provide train line compatibility readings.

The event gives “a wink and a nod” to the Miss Subways beauty pageants — held in New York City from 1941 to 1977 — where straphangers competed for the honor of having their bios and photos posted in the subways.

Williamsburg Patch

What New York City’s subway system can learn from ones around the world

New York subway riders: At least we have Wi-Fi.

That may be the only bright side after years of worsening service and a “summer of hell” for the aging subway system.

Along with delays and derailments—and the constant bickering of Governor Andrew Cuomo and and Mayor Bill de Blasio—only 65 percent of subway trains ran on time during the first five months of 2017, down from 86 percent five years ago, according to MTA figures

The system seems to be physically straining under the weight of its popularity, handling 50 percent more passengers than it did in the ’90s with barely any additions in capacity and new cars.

“The costs of postponing improvements may be even more enormous” than the inconveniences of paying for them. Sadly, that clear-eyed assessment was written in 1981, before the MTA had as much debt (it now owes $40 billion).

Why have things become so hard for the New York subway system, and why do other systems around the world seem to do things better? It’s difficult to make comparisons between different subway systems, especially when it comes to the age and reach of each one.

The city’s own long history of deferred maintenance, especially in the ’70s, as well as its political peculiarities (Cuomo controls arguably the backbone of the city’s transit system, despite his assertions to the contrary), make it its own type of transit system basket case.

But, as Robert Puentes, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a non-partisan think-tank, and an infrastructure and planning expert, says, in this frustrating moment, riders, representatives, and leaders are talking about all the problems.

While it’s impossible to start from scratch and overhaul a 113-year-old mass transit system, comparing New York with its international peers does offer insight into the strengths and weaknesses of different systems, and perhaps some new ideas along the way.
Stockholm, Sweden, and maintenance

In New York City, many subway stations are covered in decades-old tile and layers of grit and grime, often with rusted-out infrastructure. It makes any comparison with Stockholm’s seven metro lines, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful in the world, even more striking. Adorned with public art, Stockholm’s Metro isn’t called “the world’s longest art gallery” for nothing.

Many stations feature uncovered rock, with the jagged walls offering an additional aesthetic touch. The Kungsträdgården station even includes a fountain where the elevators meet the platform. Part of it is due to the city’s geography; rough stone allows the city to create au naturale subways stations, something that wouldn’t fly in New York City. (The subterranean schist would be unstable without tiling, which adds to capital and cleaning costs.) Natural cover, it turns out, is not just attractive but is also cost-effective.

Stockholm may have natural and manmade beauty, but its stations—and those of most other systems—have another advantage over New York City when it comes to maintenance: time, notably nights and weekends, when the system shuts down. While a 24-hour subway is convenient, it adds adds complications and costs to any potential repairs.

New York City has the highest operating costs in the world, says transit writer Alon Levy, at roughly $10 per train per kilometer—in Europe, it’s about $6 or $7 on average—and that’s mostly due to track maintenance and operations. Even other 24-hour train systems, such as the much smaller Copenhagen, are designed in such a manner that sections can be isolated for work much easier than inside the MTA’s vintage tunnels.

Another reason for Stockholm’s beauty may be its maintenance plan. According to Puentes, the city contracts out maintenance services to a private firm, and structures contracts to meet certain benchmarks. The city’s system manages to save money all while meeting strict standards.

“We’re good at building new stuff in the U.S., but we’re not good at maintaining it,” he says. “Infrastructure isn’t designed to last in perpetuity. Stockholm just makes sure to put these items on its budget and prioritizes them.”

There’s no magic formula here, he says, just sticking with maintenance goals and making them central to your budget.
Madrid and construction cost

New York has trouble maintaining the subway system, but at least it can build cool new stations, right? Who else has cool new Chuck Close murals? Well, it has grown, albeit incredibly slowly and at a cost multiple times more than more other cities across the globe.

Many blame the maintenance issues on the fact that local leaders (namely Governor Andrew Cuomo) in New York are fixated on shiny, new prestige projects instead of everyday, competent operations. But even when New York does create a new station or extension, it comes at an incredible cost.

The first phase of the Second Avenue Subway was most expensive rail construction project in the world. The costs were staggering: at $1.7 billion per kilometer, it was at least five to six times more than projects in other developing countries, according to Levy.

Numerous reasons have been given to explain the cost differential for the MTA: regulations, labor costs, local materials, even more costly design. But that doesn’t explain everything, says Levy. He posits that other countries are better at cost containment and organization. Take Madrid, Spain, where the MetroSur line, finished in 2003, is 41 kilometers long with 28 stations, yet was completed in four years at around $58 million per kilometer.

How can that be? According to Levy, the Spanish system has numerous advantages. One, they have a better bid and cost system. Overruns and additional materials requests are built into the contract, to help control overrun costs. And most importantly, they build quickly. Levy says Spanish infrastructure turns a typical saying about building—“fast, cheap, and well-made, pick two”—on its head by actually having a bit of all three.

Part of the reason is the way stations are built. There are two main styles of subway construction: cut and cover, where builders rip open a street and build underneath, and the tunnel-boring method, where teams set up large pits, and use large drills to work underground and build new tunnels.

The first is faster and cheaper and typically considered more disruptive, especially to surrounding businesses, but the Spanish go ahead and use it anyway. This makes their projects quicker to build. Levy even believes, in the long run, it actually isn’t as disruptive, because it’s faster and allows small businesses to plan ahead for disruptions. New York City used to do all cut and cover in the early days of the system, but it has become prohibitive as the city and system grew. (The Second Avenue Subway was built using tunnel boring, for example.)
Hong Kong and profitability

If we’re not getting private dollars, then New York City is back to its usual financial self: struggling to make ends meet. Like just about every other mass transit system in the U.S., it’s not making all its revenues at the farebox (that only covers roughly 45 percent of MTA’s budget), and by relying on a patchwork of city, state, and federal dollars, it makes it hard to plan ahead, much less afford capital improvements. Over roughly the last decade, the MTA’s costs have outpaced inflation by 50 percent, making it harder to dig out of any financial hole.

In Asia, another system is literally making billions every year, and it’s using a tool that New York has in abundance: high-priced commercial real estate. In Hong Kong, the Mass Transit Railway Corporation (MTR), which manages the subway, seems to print money compared to its peers; in 2012, it registered $2 billion in profits. Its farebox recovery rate, the percentage of operation costs covered by rider fares, was a staggering 185 percent.

But that’s not the true secret to the system’s financial success. It’s not just the stations; it’s what around them that matters. MTR owns much of the malls, shops, and stores clustered around its stations, and makes deals with owners, including co-ownership agreements and development fees. The MTR, in effect, creates its own transit-oriented commercial developments, funneling shoppers to stores it profits from, while getting them to pay for the trip. The system’s massive real estate holdings give it huge profit potential.

All this money allows the system to invest in state-of-the-art equipment and maintain a 99 percent on-time performance (“in 10 years time, everything will have changed,” the system’s operations director told CNN). Hong Kong now utilizes infrared cameras and an artificial intelligence system that maximizes limited overnight maintenance time (the MTA still has signal systems from the ’30s).

Like other comparisons to New York’s subway system, this one is also a bit flawed. For one thing, Hong Kong lacks suburbs, and has a much more captive rail market, with just a small percentage of cars owned for personal use (Hong Kong carries almost the same number of passengers yearly as New York with a third less track mileage). Like super-dense Tokyo, customer concentration means more rides. But when you think of all the valuable land near subways stations in New York, it makes you wonder what would happen if the MTA was more entwined with the real estate game.
Tokyo and efficiency

How do we fix these huge issues? Earlier this year, Cuomo announced that he was considering allowing private sponsors for certain subway stations, to help get private money to clean up at least some of the station’s mess.

But would privatization work? Wouldn’t creeping corporate control over the beloved subway, in the unlikely case it ever happened, turn it into a profit-driven system that loses its egalitarian mission?

If privatization looks anything like Tokyo, then it may not be so bad. In the Japanese metropolis, the city’s rail lines are run in tip-top shape by a handful of private companies.

The Tokyo subway handles twice as many riders as New York City (without 24-hour service), has train systems built after World War II with more efficient signaling systems, and benefit from being within one of the world’s most dense, massive metro area. Tokyo’s metro systems also benefit from land development in and around their stations.

Curbed NY Com