The viral video of the packed F train rolling into the Broadway-Lafayette station in downtown New York City on Monday evening, after an hour-long delay in which the lights were cut and the air turned off, is near dystopian: windows fogged up from the steam of human bodies, fingers fumbling through the cracks of the doors to wrench them open. There was also a skin-crawling first-hand account of what it was like to bake in those metal tombs: people were going faint and stripping their clothes to relieve the heat.
My colleague and I were on an F train that was maybe 10 minutes ahead of this one. It could have easily been us stuck in that hell, getting to know each other in very new and interesting ways. That morning, thanks to a signal malfunction that snarled trains throughout the system, my train conked out about halfway through my commute, forcing me to abandon ship and walk part of the way to work. It is the second time this has happened in the last month, on top of the chronic delays and hassles that have come to characterize the workday commute in the richest city in America, all of which are accompanied by heavy sighs and eye rolls and an ambient sense of unrelieved fury.
The reasons for this pathetic state of affairs are myriad. The New York City subway system is more than 100 years old, and ridership is at a historic high. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is deeply in debt—thanks to a bailout that rescued the system from its last full-blown crisis in the 1970s—which means that a significant chunk of subway revenue goes to paying creditors, instead of making improvements. Fixes to the system are constantly delayed and cost enormous amounts of money, partly because of a murky procurement system that has bedeviled infrastructure projects in the city going back to the days of Robert Moses.
In other words, it is the type of political knot—involving banks, unions, corporations, and government—that is very difficult to untangle. But Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor who controls the MTA, has only just begun to recognize the severity of the problem. As recently as last month, his office was still indulging in its favorite pastime of passing the blame to Mayor Bill de Blasio, even though de Blasio is not in charge of the subway.
What’s the solution? There is one proposal languishing in the Albany legislature that would raise more than a billion dollars in new revenue to make urgent repairs to the subway system. It is still in search of a sponsor in the state Senate, which is controlled by an odd coalition of Republicans and renegade Democrats. As the New Republic reported in May, Cuomo prefers this arrangement because it allows him to control the pace of reform—an extraordinarily useful mechanism for an image-conscious governor who may be considering a presidential run in 2020.
Cuomo seems to believe that his undeniable accomplishments—legalizing gay marriage, passing tough gun laws—put him in good stead with liberal voters, including the very liberal voters of New York City. His office appears to be caught by surprise whenever his constituents dare to kick up a fuss. But the subway system’s annus horribilis shows that it’s the kind of issue that supersedes all others. It is about economics, infrastructure, and quality of life. It cuts across class and racial lines, and hits you squarely in the pocketbook. The New York Times runs an article about it almost every day, and stories of nightmare commutes race like quicksilver across social media. The pressure is building. The question is, does Cuomo feel it yet?