The New York Comptroller's Office has released an alarming report on the state's ailing mass transit system, outlining the colossal catch-22 faced by the MTA. In short, there are improvements that the MTA can make to reverse course, but shoddy infrastructure, combined with dilapidated trains and vehicles, interferes with service, causing riders to flee public transit at alarming rates. And without riders paying fares, the MTA loses a vital revenue stream that would help fix its many transportation problems. That, in turn, means it will likely become increasingly expensive to take the train.


"Our regional transit system is in crisis. Service has deteriorated on the city's subways and buses, the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North. Subway ridership has fallen notwithstanding the largest job expansion in New York City's history," Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said in a statement. "Despite an infusion of $836 million in state and city funds, there has been little improvement so far in subway service. Riders are leaving the system in frustration and deserve better, especially considering the proposed increase in fares."

The 2018 iteration of the comptroller's annual report notes that the MTA currently faces "its greatest challenge in decades." Its subways, buses, bridges, and commuter railroads transport more than 8 million people to and from work every day, with wildly variable reliability. Between 2010 and 2017, the subway's weekday on-time performance dropped from 87.7 percent to 63.4 percent.From a punctuality perspective, 2017 also happened to be the worst year for the LIRR in 18 years. Meanwhile, according to the report, the Metro North has seen a roughly 7 percent decline in timely service since 2009.

(NY Comptroller's Office)

Major subway incidents—incidents that delay at least 50 trains—also ticked upward in 2018, a trend the MTA blames on The Weather, "signal integration on the No. 7 subway line and incidents at high-impact locations." And sure, The Weather does wreak occasional havoc on the subway system—please see this and this and this for evidence—but to my mind, the bounty of subway waterfalls that accompany some rainstorms may have more to do with poor infrastructure than mother nature.

As the report points out, "Almost one-third of the subway cars are more than 30 years old. These cars are at the end of their useful lives and break down more frequently than newer cars." That, in turn, could help explain why the average distance subway cars traveled between breakdowns in 2018 (121,000 miles) fell well below 2005's record 178,000 miles.

Asked about the comptroller's report, MTA spokesman Jon Weinstein said in a statement, "We know these issues and the struggles riders are facing well - it’s why the MTA has new leadership, dramatic modernization plans, short-term blueprints for improving service, aggressive cost-containment initiatives and why we’ve been pleading for sustainable, reliable sources of funding. These issues are well documented and it’s exactly why we’re focused on solutions, which is all we’re focused on every minute of every day."

The MTA does have various plans in place to reverse its rapid deterioration; what it lacks is the money to execute them. The Subway Action Plan, for example, came with an estimated cost of $856 million between July 2017 and December 2018, plus an annual $300 million thereafter. New York City Transit's proposed Fast Forward subway modernization initiative could require a $40 billion investment over 10 years (no official price tag has been announced). Various other MTA action plans come with a combined cost of $240 million through 2022, and it is extremely unclear where the agency will find the money for this.

As it stands, about two months away from the Subway Action Plan's December goalpost, the MTA has slashed the number of maintenance workers it intended to hire from 2,800 by 2019, to 1,249, with overall worker numbers expected to decline. The MTA had also committed a little over half of the capital funds (some $348.5 million total) it said it would by the end of September, has yet to commit $117 million for crucial signal upgrades, according to the comptroller.

And with respect to funding for Fast Forward, the report emphasizes, we may find ourselves tangling with a multi-billion dollar funding gap that pushes project implementation even further down the line.

Exacerbating all of this, the deeply indebted MTA also needs to find more money to buoy its operating budget. According to the report, the agency has made a number of flimsy assumptions about where that money will come from. The MTA has reportedly relied on the growth of both the economy and, starting in 2019, ridership, neither of which are close to assured. Indeed, we can expect 4 percent fare and toll increases between 2019 and 2021, which—in combination with forecasted budget tightening—seems likely to erode MTA service even further. And that, in turn, seems likely to accelerate the current trend in which people abandon the subway for services like Uber or Lyft, or hop the turnstiles as rising fares increasingly price out commuters.

(NY Comptroller's Office)

In short, DiNapoli's report highlights an urgent question: Where on earth is the money? In a statement to Gothamist, the Transit Center—a foundation devoted to transit reform—emphasized that it's incumbent upon New York State to help salvage the MTA.

"Comptroller DiNapoli's report is the latest reminder that the 2019 state budget will be make or break for New York City's subway system," a spokesperson said. "The alternative to Governor Cuomo and the Legislature acting to fund and fix the subway is protracted decline of the transit system, and perhaps of the city itself."