Descending into the sweltering heat of New York City’s subway stations, like putting up with rush hour traffic, can seem like an inevitable indignity of life in New York City. But extreme heat is far more than a nuisance. High temperatures pose serious health risks to riders and subway workers and contribute to train delays from passengers who become ill. The elderly and infirm are most affected. Fainting and illness rise sharply when temperatures exceed 90 degrees, which they often do.
It isn’t just the weather that’s to blame. Subway stations in late summer are consistently hotter than even the sweltering streets above. On one recent and fairly typical summer day, Aug. 9, the 10 busiest subways stations ranged from 94 to 104 degrees while the outside temperature was only 86.
This is getting worse because of global warming. Heat waves are coming with increasing frequency and intensity and average annual temperatures increased 3.4 degrees in New York City between 1990 and 2013. Temperatures are projected to increase another 5 degrees by 2050, according to a 2015 report by the New York City Panel on Climate Change.
Rising temperatures are magnified by growing ridership, crowding, decaying subway infrastructure and the resulting erratic service. Most of the heat that riders experience comes from the enormous amount of energy needed to stop, start and speed up trains that can weigh up to 900,000 pounds, as well as hot air that air conditioned trains blow onto the platforms. Train congestion results in less efficient braking and acceleration, which generates even more heat. In many cases, old and dysfunctional ventilation plants worsen the problem.
Unlike the weather, oppressive station heat is something we have some control over. Other cities around the world are tackling the problem and achieving results. London’s ambitious Cooling the Tube program, for example, has reduced braking-related heat generation by 32 percent, and is using innovative cooling solutions tailored to particular stations, such as drawing up cool groundwater from London’s aquifer at one station and installing a chiller system at another that cools air drawn in from the outside.
In the short term, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority can only do so much. The system’s old subway stations weren’t designed with temperature control as a priority, much less for the heavy air-conditioned trains it handles today. Modest steps, like reducing heat-generating objects on the platform or reducing the extent to which trains are air conditioned, could give some relief on the platform while still keeping subway cars reasonably cool. But really cooling subway stations, as described in RPA’s June 2018 Save Our Subways report, will take time and money, just like most of the subway’s other systemic problems.
No light at the end of the tunnel for MTA, comptroller finds
The subways are bad—and Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Joseph Lhota’s $836 million “Subway Action Plan” isn’t making them much better.
That was just one of many bleak conclusions state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli reached in his annual report on the MTA, released Thursday morning. The chief fiscal officer said the agency faces nine-figure annual budget shortfalls that will hit $634 million by 2022, even if the authority goes through with plans to jack up fares and bridge and tunnel tolls, and assuming that the local economy continues to grow at its current brisk pace.
The deficits largely stem from swelling health insurance costs and debt service to pay off the bonds that financed the 2014-2019 capital plan. Past capital plans have run long and been underfunded—the MTA is still trying to complete projects in the 2005-2009 program—and the comptroller voiced doubts that the state entity is capable of executing the next five-year plan, let alone the 10-year, $40 billion Fast Forward proposal to fully modernize the city’s trains and buses.
Quality of service has spiraled downward and utilization has shrunk even as the city’s population and job market have blossomed.
“Our regional transit system is in crisis,” DiNapoli said. “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.”
MTA officials have said the action plan stabilized the system, preventing further declines in on-time performance.
With only three months remaining in the year-and-a-half-long action plan, DiNapoli discovered that the MTA has allocated just 58% of the money it obtained from the state and city and from a new excise on for-hire vehicles. Roughly 40% of what it spent on what Lhota deemed “emergency” repairs went toward overtime for existing employees, while outside contractors gobbled up 28%. Just 12% of the money got spent hiring new staff, which can be difficult to do on short notice in a tight labor market.
Not one cent has gone toward replacing the transit network’s notoriously antiquated signaling system or its uneven and corroded rails. Despite the $836 million infusion, and $20 million from the new vehicle levies, DiNapoli determined service has improved only “marginally.” Fewer than two-thirds of trains arrived on time on weekdays in 2017, and nearly 30% of subway cars are more than three decades old.
The report lacks even a glimmer of hope. It notes that the MTA is counting on $300 million in unspecified savings to balance its books, and that planned projects like the Second Avenue subway rely on uncertain federal support. Meanwhile, negotiations with the Transport Workers Union—closely allied with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who appointed Lhota and controls the MTA—loom next year, meaning employee costs may only bloat further.
The comptroller acknowledges that “the MTA is asking the state to authorize new sources of revenue,” an allusion to Cuomo’s calls to enact congestion pricing, which would charge autos for entering the Manhattan business district. But he refers to that controversial proposal’s prospects as “not assured.” And continued feuding between the governor and Mayor Bill de Blasio over how to fund capital improvements only worsens the authority’s credit and delays progress.
The MTA referred Crain’s to its internal findings of the Subway Action Plan’s salutary effect on service, and pointed to the hiring of Andy Byford to lead its New York City Transit division. It also maintained it was on track to get its finances in order, though failed to provide much detail on its plans.
“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,” spokesman Jon Weinstein said in a statement. “ 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.”
Ferry rides are costing taxpayers $8.96 apiece
No wonder only rich people own yachts. Operating costs for the city’s ferries increased by 50% last fiscal year as the system expanded to reach farther-flung locations and officials filled service with chartered vessels.
The Economic Development Corp. spent $44 million running boats in fiscal 2018, according to recently released budget documents, up from $30 million the year before. That jump occurred because the number of routes increased from three to six, including sojourns to Soundview in the Bronx and southern Brooklyn. The frequency of trips also added to fuel costs, the city said. Over the same time period, ridership increased from 1.8 million people to 4.1 million.
While the network has proved popular with residents, tourists and elected officials, it also has been expensive to get off the ground. For the past two fiscal years combined, the per-rider cost to the city was $8.96. Passengers themselves pay $2.75, the same as a MetroCard swipe. The development corporation declined to provide per-rider subsidies for individual fiscal years but noted that the metric went up slightly.
“Like any popular startup, initial costs will always be higher than they are in the long run,” a spokeswoman said in a statement. “The incremental difference in operating costs is mainly attributed to increased service that was needed to meet ridership demand that surpassed our initial projections.”
In particular, the city had to charter private boats to cover some of the routes as it waited for all 23 of the vessels it has ordered using $84.4 million in capital dollars, part of hundreds of millions dedicated to the network. James Patchett, head of the corporation, said in May that once those ships come in and chartered vessels are eliminated, the city hopes to be closer to its ultimate goal of getting the subsidy to $6.60 per rider, which he noted is in line with other forms of transportation, such as the Long Island Rail Road.
However, some reports have dinged the initiative as an expensive way to serve relatively few riders. For example, even the mayor’s ridership projection of 9 million people by 2023 would put the entire ferry system on par with the 15th busiest bus route, according to an article in the Village Voice, which also suggested that most ferry riders were affluent New Yorkers who live in pricey waterfront apartments. The city pushed back against that characterization and said that the Voice’s rider survey was done during more traditional working hours and before routes to the lower-income areas of Soundview and the Lower East Side were launched.
NJ Transit derailment shows how pain persists for commuters
Round-the-clock repairs at Pennsylvania Station were supposed to guarantee smoother New York City train commutes. They haven’t.
New Jersey Transit’s Montclair-bound Train 6279 went off the tracks Thursday at 6:20 p.m. near the Hudson River tunnel, where Amtrak last year oversaw $30 million of stepped-up maintenance after three trains derailed. Amtrak, which owns the Manhattan station and shares it with commuter railroads, “ruled out any issue with the infrastructure” after investigating the latest mishap, spokesman Jason Abrams said in an emailed statement.
NJ Transit expected no major delays for Friday evening’s rush hour. It was “looking into the possibility that an equipment issue with the train may have been a contributing factor,” spokeswoman Nancy Snyder said in an emailed statement.
The crumbling and century-old Hudson River tunnel provides the only New York City access for NJ Transit trains, and Amtrak has said it has less than 20 years of serviceable life. It’s key to the Boston-to-Washington Northeast Corridor route, serving an area that generates 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product. Amtrak’s proposed $30 billion Gateway project includes a second tunnel and other improvements, but President Donald Trump’s administration hasn’t pledged a federal cost share.
“Every time something like this happens, it’s a reminder of why we need another set of tunnels,” Stewart Mader, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Riders Council, said in an interview.
A tunnel power failure stranded about 1,600 passengers on two trains on Sept. 8. A moment after one re-started, a piece of metal, possibly displaced from the overhead electrical system, pierced the roof of one car. Amtrak this week said it was continuing to look for a cause.
NJ Transit described the Thursday incident as a “minor slow-speed train derailment” with no reported injuries. Some riders on social media described reaching their destinations as much as three hours late initially and on Friday morning.
Occasional passengers complained on Twitter about missing shows and family outings. Commuters, though, ranted about a week of unexpected delays heaped atop service cuts as the agency pulls locomotives from service to install federally mandated emergency braking systems. Crowding, already a chief complaint, will worsen in November, when the railroad makes a push to hit its Dec. 31 installation deadline.
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