America’s power centers can’t move

What transit meltdowns in New York and Washington reveal about government’s ability to solve problems.

Issue

When the F train stopped in the middle of the tunnel, Michael Sciaraffo didn’t think much of it. A native New Yorker, he had encountered countless subway delays before. The only thing that bothered him was the heat. People were crammed into his car and the air conditioning was off. It felt like they were inside a furnace. As the delay stretched on, the windows started steaming up. Commuters started digging through their bags for makeshift fans and wiping sweat from their brows. Then, Sciaraffo says, the lights went out. It was “total silence – eerie silence,” he says, something “you don’t normally hear on the train or in Manhattan, period.”

Finally, a voice came on the intercom system and told them the obvious: The train had lost power and was unable to move. At this point, people were starting to panic. “Every minute it was exponentially hotter,” Sciaraffo says. Commuters tried to pry open doors and windows to reduce the temperature, but the doors wouldn’t budge, and the windows only cracked a few inches. Then they started removing their clothing. “I looked to my left and I saw people holding their jackets around this woman, who was taking off her actual clothes down to her underwear,” he says. “It was that bad. A grown woman felt the need to strip almost naked in public on a subway train.”

After what felt like a bump to the back of the train, it started crawling slowly toward the station. When they arrived, the platform was packed. A voice came on the speaker again, telling them not to open the doors while the station was being cleared. That was the moment, he says, “when everybody went apeshit.” In videos posted online after the incident, desperate passengers can be seen jamming their fingers through the gaps in the doors. “I will survive!” a passenger wrote in the condensation of the windows.

By the time the doors opened 45 minutes later, Sciaraffo, a 36-year-old employee of the city’s parks and recreation department, was enraged. “I said, ‘I am not going to let this go,’” he recounted later. “As soon as I get off this train, I don’t care what it’s going to take, I’m going to make a stink about this and make sure something changes.”

Sciaraffo believes another ten minutes of being trapped on the train would have led to serious health consequences for some riders. So ever since that day in June, Sciaraffo has been petitioning the MTA to post clear evacuation plans so every commuter is aware of how to safely exit a train if it gets stuck in a tunnel. (The MTA warns that the dangers of moving trains and electrified third rails makes passenger evacuations highly dangerous. They’re in the process, they say, of revamping customer communications to make sure passengers aren’t left in the dark again.)

But Sciaraffo is frustrated by the response. “I ride this train every day, and the MTA is very good at having a bad situation, and then scooting it under the rug,” he says.

It’s becoming impossible for New Yorkers to ignore the problem.Five years after floodwaters from Hurricane Sandy wreaked havoc on the subway, the system is still on the rebound. And the flood damage is only one of the many challenges bedeviling the system. There were so many problems this year – ranging from overcrowding to a track fire that sent waves through the A, B, C and D lines and two trains derailing less than a month apart – that the miserable months became known, in Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s term, as the “summer of hell.”

New Yorkers are not alone in their underground transit woes. For years, Washington’s metro system has been beset by major mechanical malfunctions and a lax safety culture that culminated in a 2009 crash that killed nine people and injured more than 70. In 2015, as problems at the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority reached a fevered pitch, the Federal Transit Administration made the unprecedented announcement that they were temporarily taking over the metro’s safety oversight.

Both systems were once points of pride for their cities. But now, as the infrastructure of the country’s political and economic power centers struggle to function, they serve as a daily reminder of the failure of governments at all levels and the underfunding of infrastructure.

A city like Washington, which has far fewer people than New York, may be able to absorb the shocks of an unreliable system. But a city as large and dense as New York cannot function with that kind of precarity.

What’s at stake is more than just a few thousand exasperated passengers. When the trains are late, workers are late. According to one analysis by the city comptroller, the delays are costing workers and businesses up to nearly $400 million a year. Wealthier New Yorkers might be able to afford a private car, or take cabs, Ubers and Lyfts, but the extra vehicles on the road are choking the city’s already clogged streets. And then there are the millions of New Yorkers who are not able to afford spending $20-$30 on a single trip – workers who often depend on hourly wages, and may find their job security threatened if they’re unable to show up on time.

“It was better 20 years ago than now, more reliable,” says Manuel Aguilar, a construction worker from Brooklyn who depends on the subway to deliver him to jobs around the city. “It’s like a lottery ticket now, you don’t know if you’re going to make it or not.”

When he’s able to find work, he now leaves an hour and a half early to accommodate the unreliability of the trains. When he’s out of work, he says, the fare hikes over recent years mean he sometimes worries about being able to afford a metro card. Earlier this year, a delay on the A train he was on caused him to miss a meeting--and lose a job.

“There’s a clear connection between the economic health of these regions and the mass transit systems in particular.”

“There’s a clear connection between the economic health of these regions and the mass transit systems in particular,” says Robert Puentes, who runs the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan think tank. “It’s not just an inconvenience. It has a really large economic impact on these regions. For low income households, it has catastrophic impacts.”

The burden is not just financial: the breakdowns have other, more subtle effects on the way New Yorkers experience their city. “There’s no point of living in one of the cultural capitals of the world if you can’t get into the city to see a play or show,” says Toby Sheppard Bloch, who serves on Queens Community Board 5’s transportation committee.

“This is a system that we all depend on – nowhere in New York do you walk into a space that's as diverse as the New York City subway,” says Jaqi Cohen, who works for the Straphangers Campaign, New York’s longest running advocacy group for subway riders. “We share this collective experience of riding the train together. So when the subway doesn't work, this microcosm of the city fails to exist. To have a transit system that doesn’t function bars individuals from every aspect of life in New York City – it keeps people confined to their communities.”

In other words, the subway threat isn’t just physical – it’s existential. And getting to the root cause, advocates say, requires asking tough questions – not just of our political leaders, but of ourselves.

This isn’t the first, or even the worst, crisis the New York City subway system has faced. The first subway system appeared in the city around the turn of the century, but it wasn’t until 1953 that the New York City Transit Authority was created to take control over all of the rail and bus services in the city (The MTA came later, in 1968). By the late 1970s, the system had been so badly neglected that it became symbolic of the city’s larger struggles with crime and disinvestment. Graffiti covered nearly every car, crime was a common occurrence, breakdowns and track fires were frequent, and ridership dipped perilously. Describing the New York City subway in an intrepid report for a January 1982 article in The New York Times Magazine, the novelist Paul Theroux wrote: “The subway is frightful looking. It has paint and signatures all over its aged face. It has been vandalized from end to end. It smells so hideous you want to put a clothespin on your nose, and it is so noisy the sound actually hurts. Is it dangerous? Ask anyone, and, without thinking, he will tell you there must be about two murders a day on the subway.”

In 1979, Gov. Hugh Carey appointed Richard Ravitch to run the MTA. At the time, Ravitch had no experience running a transportation system. Under Ravitch’s leadership, the MTA secured more than $8.1 billion in funding for a capital improvement program. Finally, the MTA had the money necessary to upgrade the system for the 20th century, and set to work clearing graffiti and modernizing trains. The revitalization of the New York City subway during that period “was one of the great, unsung urban renaissance stories of all time,” says Jon Orcutt, the former Director of Policy at the New York City Department of Transportation, now Director of Communications and Advocacy at the Transit Center, a foundation that works to support transportation initiatives across the country. Repairing the old system brought life back into the city, making it a more attractive place to work and own businesses, and Orcutt sees the investments of the 1980s as directly correlated to the large scale urban revitalization project that transformed the city into the place it is today. “The city has come back and become an incredibly thriving place on the back of these investments to rescue subways from where they were at in the 1970s,” he says.

While New York City’s subway was struggling through the 1970s, Washington was building a system of its own. Construction on the Washington metro system began in 1969. When the first line opened for business seven years later, more than 50,000 people lined up to ride it. The metro was hailed as a feat of modern urban transportation, with beautiful stations, a simple track system, and an automatic train control system designed to avoid complications like those that plagued the NYC subway system.

But the warning signs of problems to come were there from the outset. Even before the first station opened, The Washington Post reported last year, the National Transportation Safety Board warned that the system was too reliant on computers to operate their trains. The warnings turned out to be prophetic: In 1996, a train moving too quickly crashed into another train and killed an operator. Then, in 2004, two red line trains collided and injured 20 people, avoiding a larger catastrophe only because one of the trains was unoccupied. At least nine metro workers were killed in accidents between 2005 and 2010. Even the 2009 collision that killed nine people, after a mechanical failure caused the system to miss a train stopped on the tracks, did not put an end to the metro system’s crisis. In January of 2015, one person died and 84 were hospitalized after an electrical incident filled a train car with smoke. The metro, once a point of pride for Washingtonians, had become something else entirely – a cause of consternation and even fear – among riders. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s best efforts to improve their system have done little to restore confidence in it.

“It’s really the organizations and the politics. These are the two things we really have to address because no matter what we actually do, we can have the best plan possible, the platinum plan, and if you don’t have the organization and backing to do it and the resources that go along with that, it won’t happen.”

But if you talk to the transportation experts, who have studied these systems for years, they will tell you that it’s not faulty technology that is ultimately behind the woes but something much more elemental. “It’s governance, plain and simple,” says Richard Barone, an expert at the Regional Plan Association, a research organization focusing on the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut region. “The technologies we know, we know what needs to be done. It’s really the organizations and the politics. These are the two things we really have to address because no matter what we actually do, we can have the best plan possible, the platinum plan, and if you don’t have the organization and the backing to do it and the resources that go along with that, it won’t happen.”

Both subway systems are navigating the challenge of updating aging infrastructure in some of the nation’s most complex governance structures. In the nation’s capital, WMATA must coordinate the metro’s leadership between the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia. Unlike nearly every other metro system in the country, the Washington metro has no dedicated source of funding leading to frequent budget crises. In New York, the subway system is operated under the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which relies on funding determined by lawmakers in Albany. That means the New Yorkers most directly affected by the subway crisis aren’t ultimately the ones determining what gets done about it.

Transit officials in New York and Washington have been working on addressing the problems. In 2016, after a DC tunnel fire, metro authorities took the dramatic step of shutting down the system for a day of inspection. They ultimately announced the SafeTrack program, a $150 million fast-track maintenance effort aimed at installing new railroad ties and electrical insulators throughout the system.In New York, in addition to the subway action plan, the MTA has poured $7.6 billion into repairing and modernizing the subway system post-Sandy.

But Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio spent the summer trading barbs over who was going to pay for the subway repairs. “They’ve both been bickering amongst themselves – and it’s almost childlike – over who’s responsible and who will pay all this stuff,” Barone says. No one has faced more heat over the system than Cuomo, who, as governor, has ultimate authority over the MTA. In June, days after a train derailment in Harlem, he declared a state of emergency and pledged to pour an additional $1 billion into fixing the system.In July, Joe Lhota, the MTA chairman Cuomo appointed to turn around the system, announced a plan to fix the current problems facing the subway system at an estimated price tag of about $800 million, along with a larger modernization project estimated to cost $8 billion. The plan outlined aims to immediately tackle the power, signal and track issues behind most of the delays.

And while Cuomo has dedicated half of the money of the program in response to the MTA’s request that the funding be split between the city and state, de Blasio is arguing that the state redirect the funds it siphoned away from the MTA for its general fund to pay for the repairs. According to the MTA, though, the state has already committed more than its fair share. Cuomo, who’s gotten behind the MTA chairman’s plan to fix the system, has also suggested a system of tolls on cars driving in the city at peak traffic times known as congestion pricing to raise more revenue. For a long term fix, de Blasio has put forward a proposal for a tax on high earners to pay for system upgrades and reduced fares for low-income commuters.

For transportation wonks, this is bigger than just a fight over resources between two competing politicians. It gets at something larger: A failure of leadership from politicians, and an increasing inability to tackle big challenges. “If you take a step back and ask yourself why are we disinvesting in the system, it's that we have politicians and we don’t have statesmen,” says Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a non-profit aimed at reducing car dependency in the New York City region. “We don't have really leaders willing to say, ‘I’m going to make a tough choice and put money into something where the benefits won't redound until after I’m out of office.’”

President Donald Trump recently met with politicians in the New York-New Jersey region about the Gateway tunnel, an underground rail project aimed at connecting the two states. But hardly anyone expects the current president – a New Yorker who pledged to spend a trillion dollars on infrastructure during his campaign – to get behind the major changes they say are necessary to fix the city’s subway system. The general chaos in the White House has hampered the administration’s ability to achieve other major legislative priorities.

“There’s no hope from Trump” says Orcutt, who noted that as of late August, the President still hadn’t appointed a head of the Federal Transit Administration or Federal Highway Administration. (In early September, Trump nominated Paul Trombino III as head of the Federal Highway Administration; Deputy Administrator K. Jane Williams, currently the acting administrator of the FTA, was sworn in on August 21.) “The talk of infrastructure plans from Trump is just talk. There’s no policymaking going on from the White House.”

“We can blame the politicians, but the politicians are a reflection of where we stand as citizens.”

For Barone, though, the squabbles over who’s going to pay for the repairs point to a broader concern. “We can blame the politicians, but the politicians are a reflection of where we stand as citizens, too,” he says. “If we let them get away with this, if we don’t push them and hold them accountable, and if we don't say this is a priority to us, get it done whatever it takes, then it doesn’t happen.”

“Bankruptcy happens gradually, and then suddenly,” Sifuentes says. He’s paraphrasing a quote from Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises to describe how the subway crisis played out this summer. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in late August, and he’s riding the E train headed toward Penn Station. It’s a short ride, and one that goes off without any delays – which is a bit of a relief these days. Sifuentes is working on a book, “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” about the lack of public goods like functioning mass transit, so the issue is on his mind a lot. “Now, when I get stuck, it almost feels personal because I work on this issue. It’s really frustrating,” he says.

Gradually, and then all at once: That’s the best way to describe what it felt like to be a New York City commuter this year, as the system’s mounting overcrowding and infrastructure challenges exploded into the subway’s summer of hell. But for people like Sifuentes, who work on this issue every day, the problems were already apparent. “We’d been warning people for years,” he says. “We were like Cassandra, telling everybody: The trains are falling apart! The trains are falling apart! This is the year people were like: The trains are falling apart! It just became so obvious.”

It’s been a wild summer to be a transportation wonk. When the subway is running smoothly, hardly anyone cares about the issues Sifuentes and his fellow advocates spend every day fighting for. But the high profile meltdown of the subway this summer made the city’s aging infrastructure challenges among the hottest conversation topics in town. Before moving to the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Sifuentes worked at another advocacy organization, The Riders Alliance, which spent the last few years leading a public campaign to educate New Yorkers about the fact that Cuomo controls the MTA (their not so subtle message: If you’re looking for a politician to blame, blame this guy.) This summer, as the frustrations mounted, it was clear New Yorkers had received the message: almost any time the governor tweeted during the height of the crisis, he was met with a fusillade of replies, telling him in colorful language to fix the system.

The current problems befalling the subway are inciting a new generation of activists to take up the transportation cause: Sifuentes, like Sciaraffo, was inspired to take up transportation advocacy after his own nightmare of being stuck on the train a few years ago. For inspiration, they can look to Gene Russianoff, perhaps the city’s longest and running and best-known subway commuter advocate. A generation before them, in 1978, Russianoff joined the New York Public Interest Research Group and became the staff attorney for their newly formed Straphangers Campaign. At the time, New York subway riders desperately needed a public advocate, and Russianoff tackled the issue with gusto, helping push for the billions in funding needed to repair the system in the 1980s and advocating for creation of unlimited metrocards in 1997. He also worked to keep the MTA’s failings in public view, staging annual “Pokey and Schleppie Awards” for the city’s slowest and most unreliable bus services. Russianoff is proud of his efforts over the last 39 years. But lately, he says, the system he spent his life fighting for “seems to have suffered a nervous breakdown.”

Russianoff hasn’t given up on fighting for subway riders – even as Parkinson’s disease makes it impossible for him to ride the subways. Now, he relies on Access-A-Ride, the city’s transportation system for people unable to navigate the stairwells and platforms of the subways, which, he says, somehow manages to be orders of magnitude worse than the subway system itself. “I would be lying if I didn’t say it was depressing,” he says, of the subway’s current woes. Still, Russianoff is optimistic that political leaders can get something done. “I’m always hopeful,” he says. “This time, we’ve got to come up with a long term, sustainable revenue source.”

The challenges – both in cost and political willingness to tackle the problem – are enormous, so much so that hopefulness in the face of our current infrastructure challenges may not seem realistic. Then again, as Russianoff – who’s seen the subway system at its worst rebound – knows better than anyone, it may be the only attitude that’s appropriate. America is facing complex infrastructure challenges. But the story of this country is one of hopefulness – of Americans taking on big challenges, and coming together to get things done. The challenge with the subway system isn’t any different – the question is just whether we’re still able, or willing, to face it.

“The needs are pretty enormous,” Bill Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Council, which consults with the MTA on behalf of commuters, says, “but the downsides of not meeting them are pretty enormous too.”

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