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New York’s Subway System: The Most Expensive Railway Ever Constructed

New York is America’s most iconic city, filled with world wonders— magnificent skyscrapers and striking bridges. Yet, despite all of the city’s megaprojects, the one that’s most important to its function is the subway system.

At the turn of the 20th-century, New York’s subway was critical to the city’s expansion. In the following decades, it became the best and most widely used metro in the world. But it hasn’t stayed that way. The subway’s ridership peaked in the years after World War Two, but the system has hardly been expanded since then. In the 1980s, it reached a new low, as crime and a lack of maintenance made it dirty and dangerous. Yet, a few other problems have plagued the system since its inception.

In the years before its completion, battles over who would build, operate, and pay for the metro raged on. They continue today. As America became the world’s epicenter for cars and suburbanization, New York’s government failed to make the subway a viable transit for non-urban populations. Finally, a lack of proper maintenance and increased costs has placed the entire system in a hole that it may never dig itself out of. Today, we’re looking at the history of this system and the challenges that it’s faced for almost 120 years.

Before the Subway

Old railway
Old railway system

The subway was officially opened in 1904, but New York had some public transit before then. In the mid-19th century, it consisted of various above-ground railways or cable cars. But, these options didn’t service the entire area. At the time, the city was split into multiple municipalities, each one ruled by its own local and county governments. Of the five boroughs, each one had its own towns. The only public transit in the city was through the various neighborhoods, and the separate boroughs weren’t incentivized to coordinate transit.

In 1870, a businessman in Manhattan made the first attempt to build an underground train system. The Beach Pneumatic Transit line ran for just 95 meters beneath bustling Broadway street. The line was built in less than two months and consisted of a single car. Still, in its earliest days, the train was quite popular, attracting 11,000 riders in the first two weeks and 400,000 in its first year. The operator had plans to expand his system but was shut down by a series of financial blows. No part of the line exists today, but it did show a demand for a transit system that wouldn’t disrupt traffic on major thoroughfares.

By 1894, New York was more than twice the size of America’s second-largest city, and it was clear that the infrastructure needed an overhaul. So, the city established the Board of Rapid Transit Railroad Commissioners, who laid out plans for a subterranean rail system. The board was aided when, in 1898, the surrounding counties and their towns incorporated into the Greater New York City area. 

The city issued bonds to finance the project and signed contracts with two companies to operate the tracks. The city compelled the companies to fix the ticket fare at 5 cents per ride, which stayed in place for decades. While privatizing transit seemed like a prudent business decision, it would go on to be the cause of severe problems within the system.

Still, development zoomed along. At the time, the construction teams used a method called cut-and-cover. They dug large trenches, laid tracks, and built heavily reinforced roofs above. Then, streets were repaved, and life went on. This method worked perfectly at the time. It was cheap, and disruptions to traffic were relatively minor. The biggest challenge was rerouting 20 kilometers of sewers, water pipes, and gas mains. But, at the time, this was quick work. Across the river, in Brooklyn, much of the train line was built above ground. In just a few years, the subway system was ready for business. 

Opening and Expansion

City Hall subway station, New York 19th century
City Hall subway station, New York 19th century

The subway began operating on October 27th, 1904. The 15 km track known as the Manhattan Main Line ran from City Hall in lower Manhattan to Harlem on the island’s northern end. On its first day, 150,000 passengers paid the five-cent fare to ride the brand new train. Extensions continued throughout the next decade. But, the result was two separate systems— one in Brooklyn and another in Manhattan. The Brooklyn line ran across the bridge into Manhattan, but the lines didn’t connect at any shared stations. Still, the metro made it much easier to work in one borough and live in another.

But, in 1913, the seeds of misaligned incentives were sown. The two companies that operated the subway trains each signed contracts to expand their routes. While previously, the two companies had primarily served different boroughs, they were determined to infiltrate the other’s territory. So, they began developing new lines in the same parts of town, competing directly with one another to serve the same customers. The city started to regret its decision to hand over so much power, funding, and profit to these private companies. Their desire to contend with one another didn’t serve the public interest in how the city’s mayors had hoped.

As such, the subway quickly became something of a populist symbol. Mayors argued that they would put in the work to publicize the transit system, improve its efficiency, and ensure that it served a larger population. They also kept ticket prices pegged at five cents even though, by the 1940s, this meant that riders paid a fraction of the original cost, thanks to inflation. In 1922, Mayor John Hylan committed to building an Independent Subway System. This system would be run by the government. Yet, rather than being a competitively affordable public option, the independent system operated at cost. This meant that the government-run routes would cost at least twice as much as the private subways.

The first of these independent lines opened in 1932. By then, the private systems weren’t exactly thriving. The Great Depression had decreased ridership, and the rise of the public line discouraged investment. The Independent Line expanded, and, by 1940, New York’s Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia purchased the two private lines for 326-million dollars, worth more than 6 billion today.

The result was a subway line that was more or less unified. Rather than competing, the various routes were adjusted to complement one another. However, it led to a lack of additional track. Rather than building an independent line to serve new areas, the government simply acquired the old ones, and the entire system was beginning to suffer from wear and tear. By 1940, annual ridership reached almost 2-billion passengers.

Peak and Decline

In 1946 the subway peaked with 2,067,000,000 riders in a single year. The busiest day was December 23rd of ’46, where almost 9 million people rode the train. Yet, even before that day, the ground was literally laid to end the subway’s supreme rule over transit in New York.

In 1939, New York hosted the World’s Fair. The American car manufacturer General Motors held one of the most popular exhibits, called Futurama. The display showed a sprawling American city, marked by several skyscrapers. But the defining feature was the abundance of wide avenues and the cars that packed them. GM hailed suburban life as modern, safe, and, with one of their vehicles, convenient. This exhibit accurately predicted the future of American life, as more and more people fled the cities for the suburbs. The subway became seen as an old institution.

The following year, one of the most critical routes was opened— the sixth avenue line. The new line came to represent another crucial problem with the subway— it cost 5.5 million dollars for every single kilometer of track— about 9 million per mile. The price was more than double the cost of earlier developments. Shortly after the sixth avenue line opened, the city announced plans for a Second Avenue line. With the soaring prices, the question became how to pay for it.

The city did this by raising the fare for the first time since the system’s inception. Another was by issuing transit bonds to cover debt and to fund new work. However, rather than funding expansion, most of the money was directed to the maintenance and refurbishment that had gone neglected for decades.

In 1953, the New York City Transit Authority (NYCTA) was created to prevent future political battles over things like pricing and expansion. But, by then, it was too late. Subway ridership was on the decline, the federal government was funding the development of new highways, and people were fleeing to the suburbs in droves. Suburbanites refused any government policy that would allow state or federal funding for the subway system when that system neglected to reach out beyond the confines of New York City proper. Plus, even with the influx of money, costs for maintenance and repairs far outstripped the new taxes. The subway system had begun a downturn that would last for decades.

The Dark Ages

In 1965, New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller created the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Though similar to the NYCTA, the MTA’s jurisdiction expanded beyond just the city. It controlled toll booths for bridges and tunnels popular among car owners who didn’t want to pay a direct tax for the subway. The main goal of this new board was to coordinate transit beyond just the urban areas. Rockefeller understood that the best way for the subway to thrive was to serve a wide area. Unfortunately, it never did so. While New York City is hailed as a public transit paradise, that’s hardly true for anyone living in the surrounding counties.

In some ways, this was due to the person who had previously controlled the city’s urban transit infrastructure, a man named Robert Moses. Moses was the city’s chief urban planner for decades, and he much preferred car-based infrastructure projects to the subway. This was, in large part, because he wanted his impact to be visible. Moses always sought the opportunity to build a structure as iconic as the Brooklyn Bridge. In the words of one New York journalist, “When Robert Moses came to power in New York in 1934, the city’s mass transportation system was probably the best in the world. When he left power in 1968 it was quite possibly the worst.”

The most glaring problems were the lack of expansion and the need for maintenance. Trains broke down regularly, were often late, and sometimes even crashed. Still, the subway had become a cesspool, both literally and figuratively. It was a haven for rats, filled with trash, and, according to some, infested with a host of nasty diseases. 

The more serious concern, though, was the increased occurrence of crime. The subway’s cars were covered with graffiti. No, graffiti isn’t dangerous, but it did play into the perspective that the subway was unsafe, driving down ridership. More importantly, though, was the fact that robberies, muggings, assaults, and even murders were on the rise beneath the city’s streets. This rise in crime coincided with something of a dark age for New York as a whole. Crime wasn’t just a problem on the subway, but the underground system was seen as a place where it thrived. A 1985 study showed that many New Yorkers admitted to avoiding taking the metro because they felt it was too dangerous.

In 1982, subway ridership fell to below one billion annual riders. It was the lowest total since 1915 when the population was half that of the 80s. 

With the drop in revenue, the city closed the third avenue elevated line to cut costs. The raised line had been scheduled for closure for decades, but it was meant to be replaced by the Second Avenue line. Remember, this replacement was announced in the 1940s. Still, it was nowhere to be found. It looked like the subway was about to meet its end. Then, it was saved from the brink of extinction.

Modern Subway, Modern Challenges

By the late 1980s, it was evident to everybody involved that the subway needed a massive overhaul. In some ways, the entire city needed one. New York’s anti-crime policies of the late 80s and early 90s are justifiably criticized at times. In the eyes of many, the city government created new laws that allowed the police to breach the legal rights of individual citizens. Whether or not these policies were just, they certainly did their part in improving the city’s transit. 

The first step was to remove graffiti from all of the subway cars. In the eyes of some criminologists, the lawlessness that graffiti represents can encourage other crimes. Besides cleaning it off the cars, the city also purchased many new trains. The system’s stations were cleaned up. Trash cans were placed throughout. Today, 40 tons of trash are removed from the subway each day. Of course, no one has quite been able to deal with the rats, though they’re supposedly less prevalent than 40 years ago. 

The MTA began going through the long list of necessary maintenance and upgrades. Today, the metro’s signaling system has been updated to cut down dramatically on collisions. The authorities replaced old cars and rails, improving the entire system’s efficiency and timeliness.

But, the subway faces other pressing issues. Flooding is not an entirely uncommon occurrence. On days with quick, unexpected rain pour, certain stations or lines often have to close down. Disasters, natural or otherwise, also cause closures. In the last couple of decades, Hurricane Sandy and the 9/11 terrorist attacks have both caused severe damage, some of which is still being dealt with today. 

Still, improvements are delayed. The MTA is billions of dollars in debt, with no clear way of overcoming it. In some ways, that’s alright. While the subway was once a way to make money for the city, it has since become a public service. Ridership is near all-time highs, but the system is operating beyond its capacity. This is still due to maintenance backlogs, but it’s also because expansion is hardly possible.

In 2017, the city opened the first phase of the Second Avenue line more than 70 years after it was first announced. But, the expansion was shortened due to exorbitant costs. Construction of the NY subway is, by far, the most expensive rail line in the world. That’s because, rather than cut and cover, new tunnels are dug via boring machine. This cuts down on interferences with traffic above ground but also costs so much more. According to research done on the most recent extensions, a single kilometer of a subway line can cost the city more than a billion dollars.

Today, New York has more than 1000 km of track, more than 6,000 subway cars, and 472 stations. But, that infrastructure is overworked. That’s what happens when a system is neglected for decades. Now, as younger generations show a growing preference for public transit over cars, the need for investment is greater than ever. But, it’ll cost billions of dollars that the MTA simply doesn’t have. It seems that, for the foreseeable future, the subway will remain underfunded and overused.

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