New York City subway: Decline of a once-great transit system

To think we could lay out in any kind of detail on how and why the New York City subway system now works — or doesn't work — the way it does in the space of this report would be foolish, which also speaks to the direness of the situation now facing our subways and the number and variety of opportunities that our leaders have chosen to neglect it.

RXR executive vice president Seth Pinsky, a former president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said we can't point to any one thing that could have been done better.

"The whole way we run things is broken," he said.

And he offered no hedging on the crisis vernacular now employed by seemingly every politician to describe the state of this city's subway system. (Mayor Bill de Blasio: "Declaration of emergency"; "The current state of decline is wholly unacceptable… broken," Gov. Andrew Cuomo.)

"The system has broken," he said. "You can kind of coast off of your past momentum for only so long."

And if not to one or two or even 10 decisions that led to the subway crisis of the now, Pinsky at least pointed to a theme linking together all those choices.

"We were once a country that believed that if you made investments today, they would pay off in the future," he said, "and that that was a good trade to make."

These decades of deferred subway investment extend through multiple administrations from both parties in both the city and the state.

"We weren't even keeping things in a state of good repair," Pinsky said.

While equipment now fails twice as often as it once did, thanks to a shoddy power grid running a signal system now obsolete for decades directing too few trains running an archaically long distance apart, when to start and stop, the New York Times found that the MTA now employs hundreds fewer mechanics.

"If the subways don't work, New York doesn't work," Pinksy said. "So what's really at stake here is the future of the city."

New York represents the only city in the world with fewer miles of operational subway track than it ran during the Second World War.

"The time that it's taken us to make these upgrades has just meant that we've farther and farther beyond other systems in other cities," Pinksy said.

Eventually, all that neglect leads to a fracture—physical, mental, emotional, or all of the above—that forces action likely at a far greater one-time cost than more regular investment.

"We know the service isn't as reliable as it should be," NYC Transit President Andy Byford said at a press conference.

Some estimate that Byford's very-much-needed fast-forward-plan might cost as much as $19 billion.

Riders in this city already suffer the worst on-time performance of any of the 20 largest public-transit systems on the planet. And this one is crumbling, jammed with grumpy passengers and potential, while driving the world's largest economy.

"It's getting home to your kids on time, it's getting to your job, it's the productivity of our workers, it's the growth of our economy," Pinsky said. "What was once one of the great transportation systems of the world is now clearly not."