Lets Avoid Transit Time Travel

I witnessed time travel recently when some friends of mine stepped instantly from the dirty, dangerous and unworkable New York City of a generation ago into the cleaner, safer and more competent city of today.

My friends, a couple from Quebec City, were visiting New York City for the first time in roughly 25 years. Their first words to me were exclamations of how clean the subways were, how well kept the streets, how friendly the people. They had mentally traveled from a city of graffiti-covered trains hulking through decaying stations used by wary citizens to a city with clean, safe and well-functioning subways, parks and streets.

Their journey brought to mind just how important it is that we not slip back into those bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s - even as it is already beginning to happen. Although my friends noticed the cleanliness of transit compared to their memories, our buses, subways and commuter trains are actually dirtier than they were five years ago, and run less frequently along fewer lines.

This has happened because the state and city have not lived up to their obligations to adequately fund the nation's largest transit system, and so service, maintenance and capital spending had to be cut. And as the transit system declines, so does the region's overall economic health and quality of life.

It's tempting but mistaken to blame the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for this ongoing decline. The truth is that it is the politicians, principally our governor and state legislators, who are principally in charge of funding this state agency. It is they who resisted efforts to adequately fund transit, and thus forced the MTA to raise fares and cut service. A similar dynamic is at work in New Jersey with NJ TRANSIT.

The region's transit system suffers in part because no single elected official is accountable for the MTA, not really. Most people on the street may believe Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in charge of the subways and buses, but the MTA is primarily a state entity (although the city does contribute to the MTA's budget). And, unfortunately, governors usually view the city's transit system as a side note at the very southern tip of the state. Similarly, I suspect Gov. Chris Christie cut funding for NJ TRANSIT and eliminated the ARC tunnel under the Hudson River because he believed only North Jersey residents cared about such things.

It is unlikely that our own time-travel from good to bad will be as dramatic as my friends' journey from bad to good. Instead, our time travel will happen through the steady drip-drip of pretty good service becoming a little worse, just as occurred in the 1950s and 1960s, when after two decades of disinvestment, we woke up one morning to the transit system in crisis. We were given a stark reminder of the possibility of this happening with Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch's recent report about the impending crisis facing the region's transportation network. We should all look at his recommendations for tolls, special taxing districts and new, inflation-sensitive revenues as ways to avoid a darker future.

We don't want to go back to those bad old days. But in fact we are doing so with every day that goes by that we don't secure better funding for the MTA and NJ TRANSIT, with every day that goes by that we allow more service cuts, less maintenance, with every major capital project axed. We should explore every option for putting the region's transit system on better financial footing and making its better future ours. If we don't, our time traveling journey will not be a pleasant one.