Sixty years ago, New York tore down its last elevated lines in Manhattan to make way for a Second Avenue subway line. Today, New Yorkers are still waiting for it. A groundbreaking ceremony took place in 2007 as part of a more modest plan for the long-delayed line, which would now run from 96th to 63rd Streets, with three new stations in its first phase. But the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which originally set a 2013 deadline for this phase, has since reported that it may not be complete until 2017. A Federal Transit Administration study projects 2018.
The Second Avenue line’s problems aren’t unusual. Whether it’s an extension of the Number 7 line from Times Square to the Far West Side of Manhattan, a Long Island Rail Road tunnel to Grand Central Terminal, or a downtown transit hub, New York’s transit projects languish for the same reasons: cost overruns, budget shortfalls, and misplaced political priorities. While the New York skyline grows taller and wider, the city’s underground stagnates; in fact, the subway is smaller, in terms of total track miles and stations in operation, than it was in the 1940s.
How to turn things around? New York might take instruction from an unlikely place: Madrid, Spain, which first opened its subway in 1919. Between 1995 and 2007, the Spanish capital swiftly and cost-effectively upgraded its subway system, building more than 150 new stations over 120 miles at costs far below New York City rates. First, in just four years, Madrid designed, constructed, and opened 39 new metro stations and laid 35 miles of rail, 23.5 miles of which required new tunneling. The expansion was unprecedented for its low costs (about $65 million per mile of rail) and speed. Then, between 2000 and 2003, Madrid built Metro Sur, a 28-station, 25-mile circular subway line that connects the densely populated municipalities south of the city. Simultaneously, Madrid completed a direct metro line from the city’s central business district to its airport, now a 12-minute train ride away. Finally, between 2004 and 2007, commuters in the Madrid region gained an additional 80 new metro and light-rail stations, at a cost of $6 billion.
Meanwhile, it takes an hour or longer to get from Manhattan to JFK by mass transit—a rickety subway ride and then a luggage-schlep to the AirTrain for an additional $5. The MTA’s plan for extending the Number 7 line, on the drawing board since 2002, calls for new track totaling 1.2 miles, and a mere two new stations, at a cost of $2 billion. Construction finally began in late 2007, and the original plan for a two-station addition has been downgraded to one. As for the Second Avenue subway, even if the first phase is finished by 2017, the best estimate that the MTA ever offered for completing the entire 8.5 mile, 16-station line is sometime between 2020 and 2025, for a total cost of $16 billion. That’s nearly $1.9 billion per mile.
How has Madrid been able to achieve so much? Perhaps most crucially, its transit upgrades have enjoyed muscular political support. In 1995, Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón was elected president of Madrid’s Autonomous Community, an entity similar to an American state, on a promise of building 17 miles of new metro track within four years. He made good on his word. In 1999, Gallardón, having delivered on his pledge and having exceeded it, won reelection on a platform to build even more ambitious metro expansions.
To raise the large amounts of money required and avoid European Union rules limiting government debt, policymakers devised a combination of public authorities and public-private partnerships. In the partnerships (used, for example, to build the light-rail lines), construction companies spent their own money to fund the work and received concessions to operate the new lines, earning revenues from ticket sales and subsidies from Madrid’s transit authority. But the subsidies are based on formulas that don’t shield the companies from risk if rider demand proves less than forecast.
If Madrileños can do this, why can’t New Yorkers? To be fair, labor is more expensive in New York, partly because Spanish local governments and construction firms don’t pay for their employees’ health insurance, which the national government provides. But New York suffers from a host of labor problems that inflate costs and contribute to the delays. The union for New York City’s tunnel workers is much less cooperative than unions in Europe. It protects bad workers, for instance, while union rules require multiple workers to run or service machines that a single worker attends in Spain. But in the end, it comes down to political priorities. The sobering fact is that New York transit riders don’t constitute a special-interest group nearly as powerful as transit workers.
While Madrid’s citizens enjoy what they’ve created, New Yorkers will watch trains and platforms become even more overcrowded as the city struggles to accommodate the 1 million new residents projected to live there by 2030. Signal malfunctions, service disruptions, and unpredictable train arrivals will continue to inconvenience commuters, while also eroding regional productivity and economic competitiveness. Adding insult to injury, the MTA continues to increase fares and impose service cuts. If New York hopes to enjoy a world-class transit system once again, it will need to break through the political stagnation and indifference that have hampered efforts for decades.