Opinion | New York City Subways Are Still Looking for a Savior

Opinion | New York City Subways Are Still Looking for a Savior

New York City’s subway struggles are not only ever-present — they appear to be getting worse, according to data that show the system’s on-time performance sinking to a new low in January. Under normal circumstances, this might prompt public servants, seeing the exasperation of their constituents, to act or at least propose changes. Not in New York State government, though. Here, the lawmakers who control the subways through the Metropolitan Transportation Authority continue to twiddle their thumbs.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators appear to have hit an impasse in their negotiations about a congestion-pricing plan that most experts agree represents the best hope of coming up with the billions of dollars needed to repair and upgrade the subways and regional transit services more broadly. The plan, which would levy fees on private cars, trucks, taxis and other vehicles that use the streets of Manhattan’s central business district during the busiest parts of the day, would also help reduce traffic and air pollution. Cities like London, Singapore and Stockholm have already proved that such systems work. And last summer, after the subway system seemed on the verge of collapse, with derailments and extensive delays becoming increasingly common, Mr. Cuomo got on board, saying that congestion pricing was “an idea whose time has come.”

Except that the idea seems to be stuck on a stalled subway car — under the East River, with no cellphone service.

Lawmakers plan to finish a state budget this week that might not include important elements of the congestion-pricing plan, which were recommended in January by Mr. Cuomo’s Fix NYC panel of experts. This would be a gross dereliction. It would leave New Yorkers suffering through unnecessarily long and unpredictable commutes for years to come. All that waiting and uncertainty will sap the region’s economy at a time when President Trump, a rich New Yorker who has little need or love for transit, is trying his best to hurt New York by, for example, pressuring Congress to not allocate money to important new Hudson rail tunnels.

It would be beyond optimistic to think that the Legislature and Mr. Cuomo will successfully enact the comprehensive congestion-pricing proposal that the region needs with less than three months left in the legislative session. The best that can be hoped for now is that lawmakers will put in place important building blocks that could form the basis of an effective system in the near future. This ought to include surcharges on rides in taxis, “black cars,” and Uber and Lyft vehicles in the busiest parts of Manhattan. In addition, the state ought to authorize the $200 million experts say it will take to design and install the equipment needed to charge cars and trucks fees to use the Manhattan congestion zone.

A step-by-step approach can be beneficial. It would let officials at the M.T.A. and other agencies do much of the difficult leg work of creating the system while giving lawmakers more time to figure out details like the level of the congestion charge, off-peak prices and who might get discounts or exemptions. At the same time, public officials ought to identify the specific improvements that the M.T.A. should invest in — the antiquated signaling system and aging rail cars are obvious priorities. Further, lawmakers can change the contracting practices that have led the M.T.A. to spend vastly more on new subway lines than cities like Paris and London, giving voters confidence that congestion-pricing revenue will be used prudently.

Mr. Cuomo and state lawmakers might be reluctant to embrace congestion pricing because a Quinnipiac University poll in October found that a majority of New York City voters would prefer not to pay to drive in Manhattan. But the state’s leaders ought to remember another statistic from that poll — 64 percent. That’s the portion of voters who said that subway service is “not so good” or “poor.” Nearly 40 percent held Mr. Cuomo responsible for that sad state. And there’s little doubt that those voters — the city’s millions of frustrated daily commuters still seeking relief — will ultimately hold them accountable for the degradation of the transit system.

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