Smith-9th St. ribbon cutting, courtesy of Catherine Zinnel

Smith-9th St. ribbon cutting, courtesy of Catherine Zinnel

After two years of delays and cost overruns on a badly needed renovation, the elevated subway station at Smith and 9th Streets in Brooklyn reopened for use on Friday, April 26. The station is the closest one in the system to the neighborhood of Red Hook, which is otherwise strangled by the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. The relieved riders of that area will undoubtedly enjoy the restoration of service. But Smith-9th is a microcosm of the constant dilemma that the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) faces in its capital planning program: balancing expansion projects like the Second Avenue Subway or East Side Access against maintaining a state of good repair across the system.

On April 25, WNYC host Brian Lehrer interviewed Kathryn Wylde, President and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, to discuss the priorities facing the next mayor. Wylde stressed the importance of investing in transit infrastructure. “Number one is the maintenance and good repair of the existing system,” she said, quoting an estimated backlog of $6.4 billion in maintenance work. “That,” she noted, “is a real danger because we saw what happened in the ‘70s and ‘80s when we let our infrastructure go and didn’t maintain it—and it served no one well.”

Wylde is right. The MTA has to be careful not to indulge in new construction for which it lacks the funds. Yet that is precisely what it is doing: the current 2010–2014 capital plan required an amendment when it became clear that some funds were not actually available. The two main expansion projects I mentioned above currently lack full funding for the upcoming cycle. (A third large project, the Far West Side expansion of the 7 line, is largely funded by the developers who are building on land the MTA owns.)

Without dedicated funding to maintain the current subway infrastructure, there is real risk of slipping back into disrepair. Patterns of disinvestment—seemingly justified at the time—led to the deterioration of the system throughout the 1960s and ‘70s. Only when the system became a poignant symbol of urban decay did an infusion of capital dollars arrive in the early 1980s.

I have interviewed several high-ranking officials at the MTA. Regardless of their individual roles, they are dedicated and expert public servants striving to improve both the levels of service they provide and the public perception of their organization. They know that the emphasis has to be on work to maintain the system’s state of good repair; one pointed out to me that most of the expansion projects are ideas that come from outside MTA headquarters.

Unfortunately, the public has a poor understanding of the fiscal structures of the MTA. Despite the work of groups like Transportation Alternatives and the new Riders Alliance, as well as transit-focused media outlets like Second Avenue Sagas and Streetsblog, there is not nearly enough interest to sustain a serious conversation about the future of our subways. Instead, tabloid newspapers use the MTA as a punching bag and politicians pander to concerns about service disruptions.

Several recent proposals target transit policy in New York. Legislators in Albany have attempted to stem the raids of MTA coffers that happen routinely during budget season. Unfortunately, this “lockbox” idea requires a constitutional amendment and thus lacks legs. City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, a leading candidate for mayor, proposed several large changes in a platform speech on transit policy on April 11. Most noteworthy of these proposals was for the municipal government to retake control of the MTA, which has been a state agency since 1965. There is no reason to believe that such a change is necessary to achieve her stated goals of transparency and efficiency—especially now, as during the last decade the city’s contribution to MTA capital funds has decreased in proportion to other sources. And Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer revived a fifteen-year-old Regional Plan Association idea to create a new line running from the South Bronx through Queens to Brooklyn. This useful but fiscally unrealistic plan is just another shallow effort to discuss transit issues while skirting around more salient problems.

All of these ideas, while not without merit, distract from the more serious issue facing the MTA: retaining the right balance of maintenance and expansion work. It would be easy to let attractive expansion projects dominate the next Five Year Capital Program. But that would be a disservice to the agency’s customers, who deserve to continue riding a clean and efficient subway.