The MTA is a mammoth entity—an asset worth $1 trillion which carries more than one-third of all U.S. transit riders and two-thirds of all U.S. rail riders. The system is more than 100 years old and in need of continuous attention—and funding—to maintain a state of good repair, let alone expand service and harden against catastrophes like Hurricane Sandy. Considering that a whopping $22 billion of the MTA’s proposed $32 billion 2015-2019 Capital Program is slated for new rail cars, ferries and buses and state of good repair investments for the network’s seven bridges and two tunnels, as well as viaducts and rail line structures, it’s all the more discouraging that the so-called “bloated” Program is still barely half-funded and that it appears to have fallen to the bottom of our leaders’ priority lists.
To help change the negative, number-heavy dialogue and give some context to the role of transit in the tri-state region, the Urban Land Institute and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA have released a joint report and website that don’t dwell on the big, scary number, but instead focus on what the MTA Capital Program can do for New York State. The report, Keeping New York on Track, seeks to emphasize the role that the MTA plays in supporting New York’s business and tourism economies, as well as the social benefits it provides to residents. By highlighting how a fully-funded Capital Program helps New York’s biggest industries to remain globally competitive and regionally productive, the report strives to make the case for greater private support in the face of failing public investment:
- The MTA network serves 75 percent of the metro region’s total population and 90 percent of its working population
- Every weekday, the 4/5/6 subway line carries more commuters than the total ridership of San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston’s transit networks combined.
- The density of businesses in the region is more than 10 times that of the average U.S. city, which benefits those businesses by allowing for greater productivity and gives residents access to greater income
- The MTA’s flat-fare system helps to offset the increasing costs of living in the region, giving lower income families greater access to employment and educational opportunities
- MTA’s network and service hours give residents and tourists the opportunity to access parks, beaches and other destinations
The report also recounts how in the early 1980s, after years of neglect, then-MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch was able to radically change the conversation about the MTA by focusing on regional economic benefit. He ushered in the first-ever MTA Capital Program in 1982, preventing the system from sliding into utter disrepair and “repositioning it once again as the region’s key asset.” In doing so, since the creation of the first Capital Progam:
- Annual ridership up 72 percent on subways, 32 percent on buses, 73 percent on Metro-North and 19 percent on the Long Island Rail Road;
- On-time performance improved by 14 percent on subways, 6 percent on buses (since 1989), 17 percent on Metro-North and 6 percent on the LIRR;
- And even more impressive, mean distance between mechanical failures declined by 2,034 percent on subways, 425 percent on buses, 746 percent on Metro-North, and 1,173 percent on the LIRR.
Joan Byron, a panelist at Wednesday’s forum to kick off the report, said: “We have an Albany problem here. We have a governor who has demonstrated that he doesn’t get how important the MTA is to the metro and regional economy.” She said that means that it’s time for the business community to step up and deliver that message, and she was met with applause.
But will her sentiment gain traction beyond the forum?