What makes today’s decay especially maddening is that the transit system had bounced back admirably in the 1980s, under the tutelage of able M.T.A. leaders like Richard Ravitch and David Gunn and with essential cash from an assortment of dedicated taxes. Ridership soared. So did the quality of service.
The average distance that subway cars traveled between breakdowns was a wretched 6,600 miles in 1981. That figure rose to about 200,000 miles by 2010. Trains came to be on time for the most part (even if the M.T.A. definition of “on time” was arriving at the terminus no more than five minutes behind schedule). Delays didn’t disappear, but they became almost bearable.
Today, the distance between breakdowns has slipped to about 120,000 miles. On-time performance has slid to around 60 percent. Delays have soared to about 70,000 a month from 28,000 in 2012. And average daily ridership, which exceeded 5.8 million in September 2016, dropped to 5.7 million this September.
You can shortchange the system only so much and get away with it. As the Times article showed, Mr. Pataki in 1995 started a trend of steering tax revenue away from mass transit to plug holes in other parts of the state budget. At least $850 million has been redirected in this manner over the past two decades. Mr. Giuliani, faced with a municipal budget shortfall in 1994, slashed the city’s yearly contribution to the M.T.A. by $400 million, equivalent to $675 million today. Subsequent state and city leaders stuck to this rob-Peter-to-pay-Paul pattern.
Labor contracts were signed even though not fully affordable. Instead of relying on steady revenue streams to pay for it all, the state, which controls the M.T.A., chose to borrow — a lot, with future generations left to pick up the tab. Interest payments now come to $2.6 billion a year, or 16 percent of the transit agency’s budget, a share expected to rise to 20 percent in a few years.
However misguided their predecessors may have been, Governor Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio own this crisis. New Yorkers are still waiting for them to set aside mutual antagonism to figure things out, starting with where they will get the money needed to rehabilitate the wounded system. Instead of teamwork, we have dueling plans. The governor offers a congestion-pricing concept that is enticing in theory — if only he’d elaborate on what it would look like in reality. Months have gone by without his offering any details. For his part, the mayor