Escape From New York: As the Transit System Deteriorates, Is Our Region Losing Its Edge?

Image: Joseph Cutrufo/TSTC

New York City is often called the “Greatest City in the World.” It is a city where people from all over the world come to live because of its rich culture and access to opportunity.

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.

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:

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.

And in many of these other cities, transit spending is increasing. Seattle, Denver, Houston and Los Angeles are investing in their transit futures and working hard to attract talent and jobs.

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.

3 Comments on "Escape From New York: As the Transit System Deteriorates, Is Our Region Losing Its Edge?"

  1. For what it’s worth, PATCO remains an excellent way to get into and out of Center City Philadelphia. We wouldn’t live in South Jersey without that frequent, 24/7 hour train link. It’s sad that North Jersey and New York City is suffering major transportation issues. This could be an opportunity for South Jersey and Philadelphia to market their transportation strengths.

  2. Clark Morris | June 12, 2017 at 6:10 pm |

    So when is someone going to be brave enough to work on the institutional and legal factors that make infrastructure projects in North America and Britain drastically more expensive than their counterparts in Continental Europe and Japan?

  3. Sheldon Teicher | June 20, 2017 at 12:09 pm |

    My suggestion is to initiate a broad-based dedicated transportation tax on every taxpayer-whether individual, institutional, or commercial- who is domiciled within the catchment basin of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. That revenue would substitute for the fare-box and the current assortment of levied taxes and subsidies. The goal would be to put in place a stable, reliable source of funding that could empower real, long term planning.
    As an equitable trade-off, fares for all these stakeholders would be waived for any of the MTA services they would desire to use.
    I envision a two-track scheme: the revenue from individuals would meet operating expenses; while the funds from enterprises (institutional and commercial) would be allocated to capital programs and debt service. The target level to aim for with these resources should be to harvest approximately: $12 billion for operating expenses and $8 to $10 billion for capital and debt service.
    Obviously, the political problem to institute this scheme would be formidable, but the equity inherent in a solution like this is there for all to see, for those who wish to seriously consider the paradox. The MTA as you have stated, powers the whole NY Metro region. Every resident -individual or enterprise – is both a beneficiary of and a donor to the system. Some gain as riders, some gain by added client traffic, but everyone does gain. And alternatively, everyone contributes to the revenue stream albeit in wildly inequitable amounts.
    The political conundrum then, is to sell the residents on the underlying logic of an equitable tax scheme, so as to create a totally independent self-financing transportation entity.

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