By Lauren Houston
I’ve been commuting from Astoria to Manhattan since the summer of 2000. Over the years, I’ve dealt with more service interruptions and fare hikes than I would have liked, but I have never experienced the level of overcrowding we’ve had lately.
Often I have to let one or two trains go by in the morning before I can squeeze on to an N train at the Broadway station. And when I say squeeze, I mean squeeze! Some mornings it feels like a giant game of Twister. I’ve tried alternate routes by taking buses to the trains at Queensbridge or Queens Plaza, but those are often delayed or overcrowded as well.
To make matters worse, Astoria, like much of New York City, is undergoing a population boom. Over the past two years, four single-family homes on my block have been razed and replaced by multi-unit apartment buildings—and that’s just my block. All around Astoria it’s the same. The Astoria Cove development alone will bring over 1,700 units to the waterfront in 2019. Current subway and bus service can’t keep up, and every morning, I find myself wondering: how is an already overburdened transit system going to accommodate all these new residents?
The only solution to the overcrowding issue is to ensure that the MTA has the funding to implement track improvements and signal upgrades that will allow trains to run more frequently. That solution—the MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Plan—exists. But Gov. Cuomo and many legislators in Albany don’t seem to be taking the needs of riders seriously: after over a year, the governor still refuses to fund the state’s portion of the Capital Plan.
Meanwhile, the city is trying to find workarounds: the mayor proposed a new ferry route from Hallets Cove to Manhattan and a streetcar running along the East River between Astoria and Sunset Park in Brooklyn. The problem is that these transit options are only helpful for Astoria residents who live near the river; those of us who live further east will have to endure increasingly horrible commutes. At the same time, Gov. Cuomo gave a big speech at which he announced that Astoria stations along the N line will be closed for months for renovations. While I am all for upgrading and improving the stations, I worry that we might end up with nicer stations and the same slow, overcrowded trains.
While the MTA’s 2015-19 Capital Plan calls for significant improvements that will reduce overcrowding, they will not be realized if the plan is not fully funded. After over a year of vigorous negotiations between Governor Cuomo, Mayor DeBlasio and MTA officials, the current Capital Plan will be funded with $2.5 billion in city contributions (historically more than the city has contributed in the past), $7.3 billion promised by the state—which the state only agreed to after the MTA made cuts to the capital plan—and the remaining balance coming from other sources, including MTA borrowing and federal funds. Note the word “promised” in that last sentence.
Yet we’re in a position where our governor’s proposed state budget, released in January, allocates zero dollars to the MTA Capital Plan. Meanwhile, elected leaders from both parties in Albany have rejected the governor’s proposal that the MTA deplete existing resources before activating state funds. If Gov. Cuomo doesn’t hear this resounding message from riders and elected officials, then I worry he may be tone deaf.
Some may argue that Albany shouldn’t contribute state funds to the system that serves the New York City metro area, but let’s keep in mind that Cuomo appoints the MTA chairman and much of the board—and has direct control over what is a state agency. Additionally, many of the train cars are built in upstate New York, creating jobs in those communities. And let’s not forget that the majority of state tax revenues come from downstate residents.
If Cuomo doesn’t keep his promise, where will the $7.3 billion come from? My fear is that we may be burdened with additional fare hikes and service cuts to make up the shortfall. I hope Gov. Cuomo amends his proposed budget to include essential funds for the Capital Plan before it’s voted on in the coming week. I’m getting too old to play Twister on the train every morning.
Member of the Riders Alliance