Readers Write: NYC subway system celebrates 108th birthday

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Oct. 27 marks the 108th anniversary of our New York City subway system. 

The original BMT (Brooklyn Manhattan Rapid Transit — today’s B,D,J,M, N,Q, R & Z lines) and IRT (Interboro Rapid Transit — 1,2,3,4,5,6,7, Franklin Ave and Times Square shuttles) subway systems were constructed and managed by the private sector with no government operating subsidies. 

Financial viability was 100 percent dependent upon farebox revenues. They supported both development and economic growth of numerous neighborhoods in the boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens. 

As part of the franchise agreement which owners had to sign, City Hall had direct control over the fare structure. 

For a period of time, owners actually make a profit with a five cent fare. After two decades passed, the costs of salaries, maintenance, power, supplies and equipment would pressure owners to ask City Hall for permission to raise the fares. 

This additional revenue was needed to keep up with maintaining a good state of repair, increase the frequency of service, purchase new subway cars, pay employee salary increases and support planned system expansion. Politicians more interested in the next reelection ( and subscribing to the old Roman philosophy of free bread and circuses) refused this request each year for well over a decade. 

As a result, in order to survive owners of both systems began looking elsewhere to reduce costs and stay in business. They started curtailing basic maintenance, delayed purchases of new subway cars, postponed salary increases for employees, canceled any plans for system expansion and cut corners to survive. (Does any of this sound familiar from the present?)

In the 1930s, New York City began building and financing construction of the new IND (Independent Subway – today’s A,C,E,F & G lines). 

This new municipal system subsidized by taxpayers dollars would provide direct competition to both the IRT and BMT. 

Municipal government forced them into economic ruin by denying them fare increases that would have provided access to additional badly needed revenues. Big Brother, just like the Godfather, eventually made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The owners folded and sold out to City Hall.

In 1953, the old New York City Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets to the newly created New York City Transit Authority. 

Under late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 60′s, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority was created. The governor appointed four board members. 

Likewise, the Mayor four more and the rest by suburban county executives. No one elected official controlled a majority of the votes.

Until the early 1960s, most subway stations had clean, safe, working bathrooms with toilet paper. 

Revenues generated from a 10-cent fee helped cover the costs. Up until the late 1960s, it was common to find both penny gum and 10-cent soda machines dispensing products at many subway stations. 

It was a time when people respected authority and law. 

That generation of riders did not litter subway stations and buses leaving behind gum, candy wrappers, paper cups, bottles and newspapers. No one would openly eat pizza, chicken or other messy foods while riding a bus or subway.

On Dec. 11, 1988 at a cost of $450 million the Archer Avenue subway line was opened. 

Thanks to this investment, the J/Z & E lines provide direct service to both the Long Island Rail Road Jamaica Station and new terminus at Archer Avenue & Parsons Boulevard in Jamaica, Queens.

On Dec. 16, 2001 at a cost of $650 million the 63rd Street Tunnel between Queens and Manhattan was opened. 

Thanks to this investment, the Queens Blvd. F line continues to provide direct service to the 6th Avenue corridor in Manhattan without having to use the old 53rd Street tunnel between Queens and Manhattan. This affords riders additional service options for those traveling from Queens to Manhattan.

On Sept. 13, at a cost of $2.4 billion thanks to this investment funded by the City of New York — the Flushing #7 subway extension from Times Square to the new Hudson Yards Station adjacent to the Javits Convention Center was open for service.

In 1996, Metro Cards were introduced which provide free transfers between the subway and bus. This eliminated the old two fare zones making public transportation an even better bargain. 

Purchasing a weekly or monthly subway/bus pass reduces the cost per ride and provides virtually unlimited trips. In many cases, employers can offer transit checks which help subsidizes a portion of the costs. Utilize this and reap the benefits. It supports a cleaner environment. 

Today, the MTA New York City Transit’s new FASTRACK initiative is using an entirely new way to perform subway maintenance in our system. 

By completely suspending train service over a segment of a subway line, workers have uninterrupted access to tracks, signals, cables, lighting, third rail components and platform edges.

Many FASTRACK line shutdowns were completed this year which resulted in an unprecedented amount of work being accomplished. Most importantly, FASTRACK resulted in a safer and more efficient environment for employees to inspect, maintain, and clean our 24/7 subway system.

Transit employees inspected hundreds of signals and switches, repaired and replaced track rails and cross ties, cleaned track floors, performed elevator and escalator repair work, repaired water damage, cleared drains, cleaned stations and repainted areas that had not been touched in years because they are not reachable during normal train operation. They clean lighting fixtures, changed bulbs and repaired platform edges. 

Employees also perform high intensity station cleaning. 

These maintenance activities improve train performance and efficiency while also providing a visible improvement to the station environment.

Larry Penner 

Great Neck

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked in the transportation field for 31 years) .

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