The MTA’s Capital Quicksand

This article appeared on The Brooklyn Quarterly May 4, 2015.

Image: Neil Reilly
Image: Neil Reilly

The New York City subway system is one of our city’s defining characteristics. The subway is New York City’s circulatory system; without it, the city’s geography, population, and economy would never have reached today’s magnitudes. But the state government, which overtook the subways when they became insolvent as private enterprise in the 1960s, continues to neglect the needs of the system.

In late April, the New York Times ran an editorial to this effect. As everyone who follows the MTA knows, the agency has a $15 billion gap in its next capital budget. Many don’t know, though, that the MTA carries a $34 billion debt load, which grows every year under increased pressure to make debt service payments. The Times piece, which endorsed the sensible Move New York transportation overhaul plan, was tepid when it came to chastising those responsible for the chronic unmet needs of the system.

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The Expansion vs Maintenance Balance

Smith9thAfter two years of delays and cost overruns on a badly needed renovation, the elevated subway station at Smith and 9th Streets in Brooklyn reopened for use on Friday, April 26. The station is the closest one in the system to the neighborhood of Red Hook, which is otherwise strangled by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The relieved riders of that area will undoubtedly enjoy the restoration of service. But Smith-9th is a microcosm of the constant dilemma that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) faces in its capital planning program: balancing expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway or East Side Access against maintaining a state of good repair across the system. Keep reading →

Railways to Nowhere

railroad-1930-300x231Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by Richard White; Norton, 2011; 660 pp.

The locomotive is an essential symbol of that famous idea of American expansionism, “Manifest Destiny.” This doctrine declared that American society would stretch from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. It was held with such religious fervor that it became the subject of allegorical works of art. Tellingly, the railroads were not viewed so reverently at the time. Indeed, they were popularly depicted as an octopus strangling the United States legal, economic, and political systems.

With Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, Richard White has contributed a coherent and deeply thoughtful account of the rapid growth, rampant mismanagement, and swift decline of the railroads that reached the Pacific coast. White provides his reader trenchant insights to the myriad industries that found themselves intertwined, for better or worse, with the railroads. At times, he also offers criticism of the policies that facilitated the robbery of public (and Indian) lands, abuse of natural resources, and crippling of America’s economy. Keep reading →