March 28, 2004
Bumps Along the Rails
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA
Disputes delayed the first digging by more than a decade.
AS you ride the A train or the 2 train or any other line on the New York subway, you may want to mull an essential but mostly forgotten fact, one that could be posted aboard every train as a civics lesson.
It is this: Many of the lines exist because eight decades ago, a mayor and a newspaper publisher despised the existing transit companies. The city built those lines not to complement the older ones, but to compete with them - in fact, to bankrupt them. It worked, which is why New Yorkers ended up with overlapping transit service in some areas, and no service in others.
While the subway is rightly praised as the life force of the city, it is equally true that its past and present have been shadowed by politics, rivalries, grudges, accidents, demagoguery and decisions that were just plain dumb.
Most squabbles were about money, and they go a long way toward explaining the subway's central failing: wide swaths of the city have no service. With a few small exceptions, the system has not been expanded since 1941; the demolition of elevated lines means the city has less transit rail service now than it had then.
"If you go to any of the major European systems, or Tokyo or Seoul, historically, they have not just kept the system in good order, they have expanded it to keep pace with the city's growth," said Peter Derrick, a historian and the author of "Tunneling to the Future: The Story of the Great Subway Expansion That Saved New York" (New York University Press, 2001). "What sets New York apart is the failure to do that, the failure at times to even keep it in good order, the inability to come to terms with who will pay for things over the long run."
More than any of the systems abroad, he added, New York's is expected to pay for itself through passenger fares, rather than government investment.
The dark side of the subways predates the system itself. Construction of the first tunnel was delayed by more than a decade - Boston beat New York to it as a result - by disputes over what would get built, by whom, where and with whose money.
"Transit is political," said Gene Russianoff, who, as staff lawyer for the Straphangers Campaign, has spent more than two decades lobbying public officials for money. "It's been as bare-knuckles as any aspect of life in New York, going back to Boss Tweed."
The original subway planners also became combatants in one of the defining economic struggles of the industrial age, over the future of a new commodity, electricity. Thomas Edison championed direct current electricity, while George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla promoted alternating current, and they battled for years to win adherents.
The Interborough Rapid Transit Company, the IRT, sided with Edison, a mistake that New Yorkers are still paying for. Within a few years, alternating current became the world's standard. So to this day the subway system buys power from the grid, available only as alternating current, and must convert it to direct current before pumping it into the third rail.
Early business and political rivalries led to another fundamental blunder. The subway today remains two separate systems - the numbered lines in one, the lettered lines in the other - whose trains, tunnels and platforms are incompatible.
But it is money, or its lack, that has shaped the system for much of the last century. The system lives in a constant state of tension among three sets of expenses: daily operations, regular replacement of old equipment, and expansion. The debates over balancing these expenses, involving fare increases and government subsidies, often become political brawls.
In the late 19th century, the fare on the elevated and street-level trains that plied the city was a nickel. When the subway came along, the fare was a nickel, too. And for decades after, through wars and inflation, the political leaders who controlled the fare refused to raise it.
By the end of World War I, the city's two transit rail companies, the IRT and the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company, were losing money and seeking a fare increase, and the BRT entered bankruptcy, emerging a few years later as the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Company, or BMT. Yet the city's populist mayor, John F. (Red Mike) Hylan, rebuked "grasping transportation monopolies" and defended the nickel fare as a birthright. Mr. Hylan's principal backer, William Randolph Hearst, blared this view from his newspapers. (They were less than impartial. Decades earlier, the BRT's forerunner had fired Hylan from his job as a train engineer; Hearst saw attacks on the transit companies as a good way to sell papers.)
Hylan called for a new, city-owned system to be named the Independent, or IND, which is the origin of many of today's lettered lines. Rather than push the system into fresh terrain that needed service, like eastern Queens, he placed lines where they would compete with the IRT and BMT.
By World War II, both of the older companies had collapsed and the city had taken them over and merged the three systems. But city control was no panacea, especially with the fare still a nickel. The first fare increase, to a dime, did not occur until 1948, 44 years after the subway opened. By then, the country was in thrall to the automobile, and investment in mass transit dwindled. Basic maintenance was neglected; ridership and revenues plummeted, and transit strikes in 1966 and 1980 did not help matters. Anyone who lived in the city in the early 80's remembers when the subways meant derailments, fires, graffiti and crime.
New York State came to the rescue with billions of dollars starting in 1982, but in the last decade the state and the city have retreated from capital spending. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has an ambitious list of projects under way, including work for the long-delayed Second Avenue subway, but the agency's heavy reliance on borrowing, in the absence of government aid, has some financial watchdogs worried.
Politicians have always promised new service that nobody could or would finance. Both the 1913 plan that greatly expanded the system, and Hylan's 1922 IND initiative, were never completely realized. But the Second Avenue subway reigns as an icon of noncompletion, like the Cathedral of St. John the Divine or Gilbert Stuart's portrait of George Washington. Voters approved bonds for it in 1951, and demolition of the Third Avenue el in Manhattan a few years later was justified partly by arguing that a Second Avenue line was imminent. New York City Transit spends millions of dollars each year just to maintain the unused bits of tunnel it has dug.
So what will become of the Second Avenue line? Mr. Russianoff, 50, replies with a question of his own: "In my lifetime? Depends on the politicians."
Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company