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New York Post

 

Disaster On The Rails

July 01, 2013

By Nicole Gelinas

Is next mayor set to avert it?

This month, Citibank and The Economist proclaimed New York the world’s premier city — a laurel for Mayor Bloomberg from the global elite. Look deeply, though, and the study points up a muddled warning for New York about what keeps the city running: trains. Recent near-catastrophes on the rails should clear things up.

“New York is the most competitive city today and will remain so in 2025,” the study said. The mayor took a bow, rightly noting that, unlike the rest of the country, we’ve regained all our jobs since the recession.

But New York came out on top partly because of the study’s strange discrepancies.

The researchers noted that “the quality of a city’s physical capital” — stuff like subways and airports — “is highly correlated with its overall competitiveness.” It’s the most important factor.

Yet the study didn’t say in the glossy brochure where New York ranked on that score. Turns out New York came in 25th on infrastructure — outside the top 20 percent. That’s odd, because everything else in the city depends on physical infrastructure — along with low crime.

For a better indicator of where New York might be ranked in 2025 if we’re not careful, you’d be better off reading the news. So far this year, the state-run MTA — which gets most New Yorkers to work, unless you want to try your luck on those blue Citi Bikes — has suffered four news-making derailments. That’s the most news-making events in a year in at least a decade.

A derailment is mass transit’s version of jetliners nearly hitting each other on the runway — or worse. It shouldn’t happen. Five people died in a 1991 subway derailment.

For deaths averted this year, the biggest near-miss was May’s Metro-North crash in Connecticut. Two people suffered critical injuries.

But a Long Island Rail Road derailment last month (one of two this year) left thousands inconvenienced. A derailed No. 1 train forced a Harlem subway evacuation in May.

Just like crime, with derailments at record lows, it’s hard to know what to make of a spike. But like crime, too, the fact that derailments are at record lows means the pols have grown complacent.

This year, the subway alone has had two derailments, including a train with passengers — compared to three all of last year and three the year before.

In 1983, the subway had 20 derailments. And that wasn’t an aberration. Derailment after derailment starting in the ’70s spurred the state and city into making investments in the MTA. Modern-day New Yorkers just take for granted that they won’t get mugged — and that the subway won’t crash.

Every derailment has its own cause — and nothing works perfectly all the time. In general, though, derailments point to one of two problems: construction or maintenance. The Connecticut crash might have been the result of a poorly installed rail.

And while track maintenance is an obvious culprit, other types of maintenance are important, too. Something falling off a poorly maintained train can sideline it.

Even when human error — a speeding motorperson — causes a crash, often-times, a capital investment in something like a better signal system could have averted the result.

Maintaining tracks isn’t exciting, but it is expensive. In the MTA’s current five-year capital plan, it will spend $2 billion — or nearly 10 percent of all investments — keeping tracks in OK shape.

And it is spending another $308 million — at least — fixing tracks damaged by Sandy. (The sheer amount of Sandy work, too, introduces the opportunity for installation and maintenance mistakes.)

Plus, all this costs money on an everyday basis, as opposed to long-term investments. The MTA has 29,241 workers who do some sort of maintenance, more than people who operate trains or buses. Someone must walk every inch of subway track twice every week.

The recent news should serve as a stark warning to the mayor — and the people who would be mayor.

With the MTA reaching the limits of what it can borrow, it has no money for its next capital budget, which starts in 2015. Yet the feds, state and city sure aren’t ponying up anything extra. The city’s contribution for MTA capital spending — about $139.5 million annually — has fallen since the ’90s, as we’ve had to spend more on deteriorated bridges as well as parks and hospitals.

Plus, the MTA itself faces a $77 million deficit in its day-to-day budget next year — and though it is safer to cut service, not maintenance, the pols will inevitably attack any service cuts.

Yet only two mayoral candidates — Democrat Sal Albanese and Independence candidate Adolfo Carrión — are honest about transit woes and have proposed realistic plans. And they’re hardly front-runners.

The rest think that the MTA’s dire straits mean we can’t build new trains — not that we can’t keep the old ones from crashing. That could make for a dangerous wake-up call.

Original Source: http://www.nypost.com/p/news/opinion/opedcolumnists/disaster_on_the_rails_qYgBlpGsNNX8wCFFh4QhiL

 

 
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