Readers Write: A look back at the NYC subway system to move forward


Happy 114th anniversary New York City subway system.

On Oct. 27, 1904, the first subway line running nine miles from City Hall to 145th Street opened. Over 150,000 riders payed a five cent fare.  The original Brooklyn Manhattan Rapid Transit (today’s B, D, J, M, N, Q, R, W and Z lines) and 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  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 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 for over a decade. Owners of both systems looked elsewhere to reduce costs and stay in business. They started curtailing basic maintenance, delayed purchases of new subway cars, postponed employee salary increases, canceled planned system expansion and cut corners to survive. (Does any of this sound familiar from the present?)

In 1932, NYC began building and financing construction of the new Independent Subway (today’s A, C, E, F and 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 needed revenues. Big Brother, just like the Godfather, made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. The owners folded in 1940 and sold out to City Hall. 

In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets to the newly created NYC Transit Authority. That same year, the fare increased from 10 to 15 cents and tokens were introduced. 

In 1953, the old NYC Board of Transportation passed on control of the municipal subway system, including all its assets to the newly created NYC Transit Authority. Under late Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the ’60s, 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.

In 1967, NYC Transit introduced the first 10 air conditioned subway cars operating on the old IND system.  It was not until 1975 that air conditioned subway cars were introduced on the old IRT system.  Subsequently, this also included the old BMT system.    

It took until 1982 to retrofit all the original IRT “Redbird” series subway cars. By 1993, 99 percent of the NYC 6,000 subway cars were air conditioned with the exception of a handful running on the No. 7 Flushing line. 

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 reduced the cost per ride and provided unlimited trips. Employers offered transit checks which helped subsidize a portion of the costs.

Today, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is serving as the superintendent running the MTA hired by NYC who is actual landlord or owner of NYC Transit buses and subways.

All have forgotten that buried within the 1953 master agreement between the City of New York and NYC Transit is an escape clause.  NYC has the legal right at any time to take back control of its assets. This includes the subway and bus system.  Actions speak louder than words.  If municipal officials feel they could do a better job managing the MTA, including running the nation’s largest subway system, man up and regain control. 

NYC Transit subway needs to concentrate spending on reaching a state of good repair for existing fleet, stations, signals, interlockings, track, power, yards and shops.  Ensure that maintenance programs for all assets are fully funded and completed on time to ensure riders reliable service.  Any system expansion projects such as $6 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 need to be put on the back burner until all of this is accomplished.

Larry Penner

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, advocate and writer who worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office)



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here