But culture and opportunity come with a cost. Seven years ago, The Onion ran a piece lamenting the downsides of living in New York City and satirizing a mass exodus from the five boroughs. It was a joke, of course, but there is always some truth to satire. Housing costs are sky high. Commercial rents are also high. But New York City has something that no other major American city can offer: a fast, efficient rapid transit network that operates 24 hours a day and provides service throughout the city, along with the nation’s most comprehensive regional rail network, which connects suburbs and secondary urban centers with the central business district.
Fast, efficient mass transit is NYC's single greatest competitive advantage over other US cities. Without it, what's left? https://t.co/7rnJ8MQ61l
— Jordan Fraade (@schadenfraade) June 6, 2017
As the transit system continues to show the signs of continual under-investment, we have to wonder whether we’ve reached the point where the city’s transit infrastructure is becoming more of a liability than an asset. A vast, well-functioning mass transit network should be what sets New York apart from other major metro areas. But with the deteriorating conditions we’ve seen across the system in the last several months, is our transportation infrastructure as likely to repel people and investment as much as it attracts?
With such an unbelievably long backlog of transit needs and a system that can barely handle the daily demands of a morning or evening commute, it seems a crisis is brewing — one that could have a seriously detrimental impact on the city and the region.
Bad Moon Rising
There are a series of problems looming large mostly (or entirely) due to regional and national leaders having been unable or unwilling to fix them:
- Hudson River Tunnels: Critically important not only to New York and New Jersey but to the entire northeast corridor, this project is slowly inching along with no funding identified as of yet. The notion that the existing North River Tunnels could fail before Gateway is complete is already affecting whether people are willing to move to New Jersey.
- Port Authority Bus Terminal: Projected to cost $10 billion, only $3.5 billion was allocated in the Port Authority Capital Plan, about the same as the total committed for extending the PATH train and building the La Guardia Air Train, neither of which is an urgent need.
- PATH Train Capacity: The PATH train is operating at capacity, which will only be temporarily alleviated by the current Port Authority Capital Plan. Instead of prioritizing meeting this demand, PANYNJ wants to add riders to the system first via an extension.
- Subway Signal Systems: There are signal problems on the system almost every day now. Yet the recent amendment to the MTA Capital Plan was focused on other improvements like station beautification.
- L Train Shutdown: This is a problem that has been looming for a while now, yet the MTA’s plan still raises several questions.
- Second Avenue Subway: The Q extension to Manhattan’s Upper East Side that opened at the beginning of 2017 represents a small portion of the Second Avenue Subway plan that has been bouncing around for almost 100 years.
- MTA Buses: The response to falling bus ridership was “Ferrari-like” buses with USB ports and Wi-Fi — not the improvements recommended by New York City’s Bus Turnaround Coaliton (though that’s starting to change with the upcoming overhaul of Staten Island express buses).
- Northeast Corridor/Amtrak/Penn Station: Amtrak has a $38 billion dollar backlog for the Northeast Corridor alone due to a legacy of unwillingness by Congress to invest in the system. The negative repercussions of that backlog have begun to impact commuters from New Jersey and Long Island.
This is a long list of problems, some of which have overlapping timelines that would amplify the impact to the system. For example, the Port Authority Bus Terminal and Hudson River Tunnels were given similar timelines for the end of their useful lives. The Penn Station work this summer is a tiny snapshot of how if both existing tunnels failed at the same time, it would be catastrophic for the region. Without the benefit of this transit investment legacy, will the New York City region be able to thrive in the future?
Millennials, Baby Boomers and the Knowledge Economy
42 percent of baby boomers and 63 percent of millennials want to live in a place where they don’t need to own a car. So it would seem that our extensive public transit system would make the New York metropolitan region a natural fit for attracting these demographic groups. In fact, that has proven to be the case in many areas already, with the trend continuing from Bloomfield to Yonkers.
But this trend won’t continue if the transit situation continues to get worse, especially when you consider how cities across the country offer a much lower cost of housing than in New York. According to the New York Times:
The average Manhattan apartment, at $3,973 a month, costs almost $2,800 more than the average rental nationwide. The average sale price of a home in Manhattan last year was $1.46 million, according to a recent Douglas Elliman report, while the average sale price for a new home in the United States was just under $230,000.
Not an Empty Threat
This is not a hypothetical; the problems with the region’s transit system are already playing a role in where people are choosing to live, both within and outside of the city. Moreover, people around the country are already making the move to these more affordable cities. Despite the largest capital plan in the history of the MTA, a huge Port Authority Capital Plan and an increase in the New Jersey’s gas tax last year, the region’s transit system is falling behind. Yes, we’re investing more, but the problem is vast and spending priorities are often misplaced.
In the 21st Century, people will continue to move to cities, but with the freedom and mobility provided by the knowledge economy, that migration will not necessarily lead to New York. As other cities pay more attention to mobility and highlight their other benefits like relatively low housing costs, easy access to nature, or even pleasant weather, we must not rest on our laurels. If our city and region are going to continue to be number one, we have to treat our number one asset as our number one priority.