Hace casi 80 años, se estancó la construcción que hizo descarrilar el progreso del Metro, lo que llevó a su actual crisis. Esta es la historia, década por década.
En las primeras décadas del siglo XX, la ciudad de Nueva York experimentó un auge de infraestructura sin precedentes. En tan solo 20 años se construyeron emblemáticos puentes, opulentas terminales ferroviarias y gran parte de lo que entonces era la red subterránea de transporte público más grande del mundo. De hecho, ese sistema de Metro creció de una sola línea en 1904 a una red de cientos de millas de largo en la década de 1920. Se extendió rápidamente a tierras no desarrolladas a lo largo de la parte superior de Manhattan y los distritos exteriores, trayendo consigo una ola de casas de departamentos.
Luego se detuvo. Desde el 16 de diciembre de 1940, Nueva York no ha abierto una nueva línea de Metro, aparte de un puñado de pequeñas extensiones y conexiones. A diferencia de la mayoría de las otras grandes ciudades, el sistema del Metro de Nueva York permanece congelado en el tiempo: los pasajeros con iPhones están parados en estaciones que casi no han cambiado desde hace mas de 80 años.
De hecho, de alguna manera, las cosas han retrocedido. La red es en realidad considerablemente más chica de lo que era durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, y los seis millones de pasajeros diarios actuales enfrentan a demoras constantes, fallas en la infraestructura asi como vagones y plataformas abarrotadas de gente.
¿Por qué Nueva York dejó abruptamente de construir Metro después de la década de 1940? ¿Y cómo un estancamiento en construcción que inicio hace casi 80 años llevó a la actual crisis de transporte publico?
Tres grandes líneas de historia proporcionan una explicación. La primera es la atraccion de los suburbios y el automóvil de la posguerra, que encarnaban la modernidad en su día. La segunda son las interminables batallas de control entre la ciudad y las compañías privadas de transporte publico, y entre la ciudad y el gobierno estatal. La tercera es el circulo vicioso creado por el incremento en costos y la abultada acumulacion de mantenimiento diferido, en constante expansión que eventualmente consumió los fondos disponibles para la expansión.
Para ver exactamente cómo y por qué el metro de Nueva York se descarrilo requiere que volvamos hasta su comienzo. Lo que sigue es una cronología de 113 años de historia del metro, organizada por estas tres narrativas (con la advertencia de que ninguna historia está 100% completa). Sigala cronológica o temáticamente para el contexto histórico del lamentable estado del sistema, o use un simpático “mapa” de la declinación del Metro.
1904: Primera linea subterranea abre
La empresa privada Interborough Rapid Transit abrió la primera línea de Metro subterráneo en 1904, que se extiendia desde West Harlem hasta Grand Central. Después de tomar control de los ferrocarriles elevados existentes, creó un casi monopolio de transporte publico rápido en Manhattan y el Bronx. La compañía Brooklyn Rapid Transit dominaba el negocio de transporte publico elevado en ese distrito, así como sus conexiones con Manhattan.
1913: The “Dual Contracts”
En un acuerdo llamado “Contratos Duales”, la ciudad confió a las dos compañías de metro privadas una expansión radical del sistema. Casi de inmediato, los líderes municipales lamentaron la decisión. Muchos estaban insatisfechos con el rendimiento financiero de la inversión de más de $200 millones, más de la mitad del costo total de la construcción.
La disputa sin embargo fue más allá de las meras finanzas: el Metro se volvió símbolo de la batalla entre los intereses públicos y privados, y piedra de toque populista para una sucesión de alcaldes.
Su arma más importante, fue el control de la tarifa del metro: al negar permiso a las empresas privadas de cobrar más de 5 centavos durante décadas, por efectos de la inflación se provocó que los pasajeros pagaran en 1948 menos de la mitad de lo que pagaban en 1904.
1922: Independent Subway
La oposición al duopolio privado del transporte publico fue pieza clave de la administración del alcalde John Hylan. Anunció un vasto sistema de metro “Independiente” nuevo, que sería construido y propiedad del gobierno municipal. A diferencia de las líneas de metro previas, que penetraron en territorio no desarrollado, muchas de las líneas IND corren cerca y en paralelo a las rutas privadas existentes para competir con ellas.
El sector de bienes raíces fue uno de los más importantes electores que apoyaban el desarrollo del sistema de Metro en los primeros años. Los desarrolladores disfrutaron de una relación simbiótica con el Metro, que se extendió a terrenos baldios que luego, rápida y rentablemete fueron tapizados de casas de apartamentos cuyos residentes llenaban los trenes. Con la construcción del IND, ese ventajoso trato preferencial comenzó a desmoronarse; –consideraban al nuevo Metro más como una carga impositiva que un generador de grandes ganancias especulativas.
1939: World’s Fair
As visitors to New York’s 1939 World’s Fair gazed on General Motors’ vision of the world to come at its Futurama exhibit, they didn’t see new trains and subways. Instead, they saw cars traveling quickly on wide new superhighways to bungalows in a bucolic landscape. The car was viewed as the height of modernity; many dismissed public transit as a grimy relic of an earlier age. The postwar federal government would spend what it took to make the suburban dream come true.
1940: City takes over the private subways
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took advantage of the disastrous finances of the BMT and IRT, ravaged by the Depression and the ban on fare increases, to acquire both companies. That strained the city’s resources, with a total cost of $326,248,000. The cost was not much lower than that of building the entire IND network, and while it did unify the system, it didn’t produce a single additional mile of subway.
1940: Sixth Avenue subway opens
The Sixth Avenue line was one of the core segments of the IND’s Manhattan network. It was to be followed soon after by the Second Avenue line, but New Yorkers ended up waiting over 70 years for even a tiny segment of that project to be completed. The Sixth Avenue subway was an astonishing engineering achievement: The work had to weave around both the PATH train tunnel and the supports for the busy elevated line above. Such wizardry did not come cheaply, and it was emblematic of the high standards—and costs—on all the new IND lines.
1946: Subway ridership peaks
Subway ridership has never been as high as it was in 1946, and a precipitous decline began in the late 1940s as automobiles became widely available. The busiest station in the system, Times Square, saw its ridership drop from 102,511,841 riders in 1946 to 66,447,227 riders in 1953. Subway expansion would become increasingly difficult to justify as New Yorkers were abandoning the existing system—even though outward expansion was just what was needed to keep the subway as the region’s primary mode of transportation.
1947: End of the five-cent fare
With the subways now in municipal hands, a doubling of the fare was finally negotiated. Years of deferred maintenance by the cash-strapped private companies had become increasingly evident. But by then, fare hikes only exacerbated the problem of declining ridership.
1951: Transit Bond issue
After 1945, the City of New York found itself in constrained financial circumstances. The growth and modernization of its infrastructure necessitated substantial borrowing, but the city was already burdened by an enormous Depression-era debt and faced a state-mandated debt limit. In November 1948, the Board of Transportation recommended that the city seek a $500 million exemption from the debt limit to permit the revival of the Second Avenue Subway plan, along with several outer-borough projects like the Utica Avenue line that mayors since have continued to tout, most recently Bill de Blasio. (Indeed, the wish list for subway construction has changed little to the present day.) The request passed in a statewide referendum on November 6, 1951.
1953: Creation of the Transit Authority
To ensure that fare policy never again became captive to electoral politics, many civic leaders advocated for the creation of an independent state authority to administer the city’s transit system, comparable to the Port Authority or Robert Moses’ Triborough authority. The subways were thus handed over to the state-created Transit Authority.
But the institutional reshuffle did not resolve the fundamental financial problems of a system; ridership continued to decline and maintenance remained deferred. The state and municipal governments were both unwilling to provide the subsidy that would have been needed to adequately sustain the system. Unlike highways, transit was still seen as a business that should make a profit, and not as a public service.
1956: The Interstate Highway Act
With the encouragement of President Eisenhower, Congress passed an act providing lavish federal funding for a cross-country network of expressways. The 1950s saw the construction of over a dozen major expressways and bridges in the New York region. This construction program rivaled or even exceeded the earlier subway boom. And unlike the subways, all of it benefited from federal largesse. Celebrating the completion of the Bruckner Expressway in the Bronx, Mayor Robert Wagner boasted, “This two and one-half mile stretch of elevated expressway cost more than $34 million, of which 90 percent was put up by the federal government.”
1950s: Growth of the suburbs
By the postwar period, the majority of population growth in the New York region was taking place outside of the five boroughs. New York City no longer dominated the region to the same extent that it once had, and the growing political power of the suburbs hindered funding requests for subway projects that many suburbanites believed did not benefit them. Manhattan and Brooklyn shrank from 1940 to 1960, while Nassau and Suffolk counties essentially tripled in population.
Yet New York City still planned subway projects as if the suburbs didn’t exist. In the postwar period, most greenfield real estate development shifted out of the city entirely and into the surrounding counties. Instead of being built around transit, new developments were centered on expressways.
1965: Creation of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority
In an effort to address the geographic and financial limitations of the Transit Authority, Governor Nelson Rockefeller created a new regional authority that would ultimately control the subways and commuter railways. It was given the toll revenue from the Triborough Authority’s bridges and tunnels, which had been the financial basis of Robert Moses’ bureaucratic empire, to provide the revenue needed to subsidize the transit system.
But while the new authority’s service area stretched beyond the five boroughs for the first time, it never made efforts to turn the subway and commuter railroads into a combined regional transit system. (For such a model, consider Paris’ Regional Express Network). New York may be an extraordinarily transit-oriented city, but once the municipal boundary is crossed into Nassau and Westchester, transit—especially other than commutes to Manhattan—is near as foreign a concept as it is in a wealthy Los Angeles suburb.
1968: Program for Action
The new MTA announced the last of its comprehensive plans to expand the network on the pharaonic scale of prewar construction. It proposed a number of new lines in the outer boroughs, a full Second Avenue subway, and a “superexpress” line along the LIRR in Queens. Construction began on several of the projects, but even those were only completed in truncated form or abandoned entirely. Never again would the MTA seriously plan major network expansion. Instead, the only discussion is of projects like the new Second Avenue line or 7 train extension, which are of a scale that would barely have registered on the city’s consciousness in the 1910s and ‘20s.
1973: Closure of the Third Avenue Elevated
As transit ridership dropped from prewar level, segments of the city’s subway and elevated system were abandoned entirely. While elevated lines had previously been closed to be replaced with adjacent subway lines, they were now closed without their promised replacements ever being built, including, infamously, the Second Avenue elevated line in Manhattan. The Bronx segment of the Third Avenue Elevated was the last major segment of the system to be shut down without replacement.
1975: Fiscal crisis and Second Avenue abandonment
The centerpiece of the Program for Action, the Second Avenue Subway, had begun construction in the early 1970s. But with the complete disintegration of the city’s finances, construction simply could no longer be supported. The disconnected tunnel segments have lain underused beneath the streets ever since. Several bond issues intended to finance subway expansion had also been defeated, and the limited funds that were available ended up being diverted to the system’s dilapidated trains and stations.
1988: Opening of three-stop Jamaica extension
The 1968 Program for Action proposed a number of projects intended to improve subway service in some of the neighborhoods that had sprouted up in the postwar years, particularly in Queens. Unfortunately, few of the projects were built. One small remnant was the extension of the E train to Jamaica; the J and Z trains were also moved off a nearby elevated line into the new tunnel along Archer Avenue. But a combination of limited funds and community opposition derailed more substantial expansion plans. Even simple extensions along existing rail corridors had become out of reach.
2017: First phase of the Second Avenue subway opens
The Second Avenue Subway has been part of the city’s transit plans since the creation of the IND in the 1920s. It was intended to replace two elevated lines that shut down in the 1940s and 1950s respectively. An attempt to begin construction was abandoned due to the financial crisis of the 1970s and only a few tunnel segments were built. Over the years, plans were scaled down, and its length was trimmed to only three stops on the Upper East Side. The prospect for future phases remains unknown.
Beyond: The high cost of forgotten history
Many other world cities also slowed their pace of subway construction in the early postwar years. They, too, succumbed to the appeal of the automobile, or struggled with debt and destruction accumulated during the Depression and Second World War. But by the 1960s, this had changed. London opened two new Underground lines in the 1960s and 1970s. Paris began its vast RER project to connect all of its commuter rail lines, linking the rapidly growing suburbs with the historic core.
Now, New York’s economy has turned around, the population is growing, and the city is in a relatively good financial position. Still, the maintenance backlog is devouring capital spending. Staggering subway construction costs—by far the highest in the world—mean that whatever funding is available does not go very far at all. Old problems that precluded subway construction in the past echo in the present day: There is still no meaningful integration between thesubway and suburban transit, the mayor and governor carry on the same types of jurisdictional battles, and the subway has not managed to step off the treadmill of deferred repairs. These problems have deep roots, and overcoming them will not be a simple matter.
Most challenging of all is the shockingly high cost of subway construction. Anyone would expect costs to have risen since the early days of the system, but even compared to the 1980s, the cost of the Second Avenue line is nearly double when adjusted for inflation. Procurement problems and labor relations issues are partial explanations, but the most important factor may be the wholesale loss of experience resulting from the decade-long gaps in construction. One of the distinct characteristics of European systems with much lower building costs is continuous construction: Every time they complete a new line, they are able to apply the lessons from the one previous. But in New York, from the opening of the Archer Avenue Line in 1988 to the construction of the 7 train extension and Second Avenue lines in the 2010s, virtually all the experience and knowledge that had been built up in subway construction had atrophied.
The same situation risks repeating itself, as the Second Avenue construction has been completed with no new construction immediately on the horizon. The subway’s cost-induced construction paralysis becomes more severe with every passing decade. We must learn from history in order to break it.