Elections Metro Rail New York

The boundaries that divide our transit systems


» In New York City, transit providers create new services to handle disruptions—even when existing lines can support the load.

Beginning early this month, PATH—the metro rail system operated by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey that connects Manhattan and Northern New Jersey—began installing new signals, forcing the closure of a section of its network in New York City. In the process, the agency is providing a bus shuttle service as a substitute over the course of 17 weekends, shuttling passengers on an above-ground route between the Midtown business district and the World Trade Center, where PATH trains continue to run.

All of this might make sense under normal circumstances; in fact, in places like Chicago where rail lines have been shut down, bus service replacement has worked well. Yet in New York, the service being replaced runs on a corridor shared by other subway lines*—but they’re managed by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) instead. Those lines not only are faster than the buses PATH is providing, but they show up more often, and they connect directly underground to the World Trade Center (which the buses do not).

Benjamin Kabak of Second Avenue Sagas delved into the details—and appropriately condemned—this service change last week. PATH has chosen to shuttle its passengers rather than take advantage of existing New York City Transit Subway services, giving them vouchers to use on the buses instead of working with the MTA to let riders take advantage of the trains it is running. It is a disappointing reflection of the state of cooperation between the Port Authority and the MTA.

Yet I can’t help chiming in, too, to discuss the mentality of transit operators that choose to pursue this course of action. For, while PATH’s “bustitution” is uniquely problematic, the agency’s perspective on how to act is hardly rare at all. Indeed, as I’ll describe below, given their general understanding about how to operate, it is a surprise that we don’t see more actions of this sort by transit agencies in the U.S.

Operators act as if their riders are incapable of using other services—or as if those other services simply don’t exist

It is possible that the Port Authority asked the MTA to provide free transfer rides to its PATH riders arriving at the World Trade Center, and the MTA declined the idea. Or perhaps the Port Authority determined that providing riders vouchers for rides on the MTA would be more expensive than operating the relatively minimal-cost substitute bus (see below). Even so, the decision to “bustitute” smacks of agencies that don’t believe customers should be transferring between services.

PATH’s approach is to assume that its customers can only take PATH-branded services, and thus that if the PATH rail line isn’t working, they’ll have to take a new PATH bus. Other transit services might as well not exist.

PATH, of course, is hardly alone in this approach. The MTA was capable of producing a map that demonstrated “regional transit connections,” including the Subway, PATH, and other services—but only during the Super Bowl in 2014. Otherwise, the Subway map treats PATH (which carries more than 250,000 riders a day) as a minor railroad hardly visible on the map, and with its service in New Jersey simply not shown.

In Chicago, the commuter rail agency Metra and the local metro rail system, the CTA ‘L,’ share stations at two points (the product, no doubt, of clearheaded thinking at some point decades ago), yet riders are provided no discount to transfer between these services. When required by state legislation to provide a single, shared fare card, the commuter rail agency responded by cooperating on the development of an app that can’t be used to board a CTA bus or train.

These agencies operate with isolation mentalities, ignoring the fact that their riders may well want to take advantage of other transit services, or even (gasp!) that many of them already do.

This approach has nefarious consequences that extend not only into the service that operators provide but also into the projects they choose to build. When planning a new route, for example, agencies often ignore the potential for improving existing services operated by other agencies; this results, for example, in BART pushing a multi-billion dollar expansion of its services to San Jose instead of encouraging local stakeholders to invest in improving existing commuter rail services such as Caltrain or Altamont Corridor Express.

Operators act as if they are in competition with other operators

Behind PATH’s decision to provide users a bus to substitute for its weekend service outage is the sense that the agency is somehow in competition with New York City’s Subway network. The agencies both provide services under Sixth Avenue, but to transfer between trains requires leaving one system and entering the other. From the rider’s perspective, the relationship between the two services is confrontational, rather than cooperative—and the weekend “bustitution” furthers this impression.

What’s ironic about this arrangement, of course, is that both PATH and the New York City Subway are run by public agencies (supposedly) serving in the public interest and receiving public subsidies to operate and construct projects. Each receives funding from the federal government to maintain infrastructure. Each operates on a tax-free basis. And each is controlled by state governments (in the case of the Port Authority, its management is 50 percent controlled by the State of New Jersey). One would think they might have an incentive to work together.

In other cases, transit agencies are even more directly linked. In the Chicago region, for example, both CTA and Metra receive operating subsidies from the same regional sales tax and from the same state matching funds (MTA and PATH have different operating subsidy sources). Yet those agencies’ management is divorced from one another and neither is compelled to consult the other when developing service plans or integrating fare systems.

The results are familiar to transit riders in many parts of the country: Difficulty making multimodal transfers, confusion about which services operate where and when, and additional costs when using multiple operators.

Sources of operator isolation

It is worth noting that the “bustitution” provided by PATH will not be particularly expensive to provide on the grand scheme of things. Using the information provided by PATH about its weekend service, I estimated that the agency would need a total of four buses to provide service—such a small number that the organization can surely scrounge up the buses from its existing airport fleets.

Assuming operating costs of New York City Transit buses in 2014 (from the Federal Transit Administration’s database), the total costs of operation will be between $720,000 and $930,000 for all of the relevant weekends (depending on whether you calculate based on average cost per vehicle revenue hour or revenue mile). These costs would account for less than a third of a percent of PATH’s $342 million 2016 operating budget.

Nevertheless, it would be cheaper for both transit systems overall for the MTA to simply absorb the transferring PATH riders during the weekend shutdowns. This would require no additional operating costs on the part of the Port Authority and likely nothing for the Subway system either, as it has the capacity to absorb these weekend passengers. But this would mean the MTA and the Port Authority would have to work for the good of the general public, not just their respective riders or agencies.

To place the blame for the operator malfunctions described above on the operators alone is almost as bad as the actions of the operators themselves. For while it is true that operators often have a lot of responsibility for the way they interact with their peers, it is also true that their economic and political makeup often obligates them to act as they do.

Transit operators in the U.S., as noted above, are universally subsidized. Those subsidies are provided to operators based on pre-set parameters that have been negotiated over time between elected officials, the public (through referenda), and the operators. In general, the subsidies are attributed to operators without operating requirements. As a result, operators are often free to make their own decisions about how to spend their funds, without required consideration of regional needs, potential overlap with other agencies, or direction from political officials.

Most transit providers are public authorities with boards appointed by elected officials representing local, regional, and state governments. In many cases, the same elected officials appoint officials to multiple transit boards; New York’s governor appoints representatives to both the MTA and the Port Authority, for example. This setup might imply that elected officials have some oversight responsibility (or sense of obligation) to make the right decisions for transit riders.

In regions where transit services are consolidated, such as in Boston or Minneapolis, these conditions are less problematic. State leadership holds transit service accountable and sets priorities for system expansion. And one agency (MBTA or Metro Transit) is tasked with setting service standards, and the agencies generally have an incentive to encourage riders to experience the system as a whole, not just a collection of lines.

That said, even in Boston, unified control of the transit system under one agency hasn’t prevented such absurdities as it costing riders $6.75 to ride between Braintree and South Station on commuter rail and only $2.25 to make the same trip on the Red Line subway. The commuter rail line, yes, is nine minutes faster—but it also runs only 18 times a day in total, versus every 9 to 12 minutes on the Red Line.

A better grasp on what regional goals are for transit networks in general, and a commensurate focus by elected officials on telling agencies what to do, rather than letting agencies operate in isolated fiefdoms, would aid American transit riders. In places with multiple transit agencies, it probably shouldn’t be up to individual operators to determine which services to prioritize, or what fares to charge, or where to expand, or how to deal with a major service change due to construction.

Elected officials rarely take responsibility for running transit services effectively and responsibly, the sort of “Sewer Socialism” Sandy Johnston has focused on of late. Transit agencies shouldn’t operate in a vacuum, devoid of political involvement (despite their considerable public subsidies), but they often do—and they do so with the explicit support of politicians who don’t have the interest, engagement, or expertise to demand better. New York’s Governor Andrew Cuomo should force the Port Authority and the MTA to work together. His constituents should demand that he does.

* Riders trying to get from Midtown near Sixth Avenue (where the PATH runs) to the World Trade Center have several options on the Subway system: Taking the 1 to Chambers Street; the 2 or 3 to Park Place; the E to World Trade Center; the A or C to Chambers Street or Fulton Street; or the R to Cortlandt Street.

Image at top: PATH’s 33rd Street Station, from Flickr user Friscocali (cc).