All Roads Lead to Manhattan

In the run-up to the 13-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, USA Today ran an article highlighting the susceptibility of New York City’s water crossings to terrorist attacks. It pointed mainly to the George Washington Bridge and the Brooklyn Bridge as being the “holy grails of terrorist targets.” But these bridges, and indeed, the entire transportation system in the New York City area, are under attack on a daily basis from a much more insidious foe: the crisis of capitalism—and all the cuts and austerity that go with it.

metronorthderailmentIn an odd juxtaposition that has become a hallmark of the post-9/11 United States, USA Today cited the hanging of a Palestinian flag from the Manhattan Bridge by protesters, the swapping out of American flags for white flags on the Brooklyn Bridge by German artists, and the scaling of the bridge by a Russian tourist as examples of their vulnerability to terrorist attacks.

The article was mostly concerned with these sites being iconic symbols. Of course, concern for those who might be physically harmed by a terrorist attack on such sites is implied, but the concern for the devastating, long-term effects of the destruction or closure of any number of bridges or tunnels was notably absent. Perhaps this is because the normal functioning of capitalism is doing a fine job on its own of disrupting the traffic flow in the NYC metro area.

The decrepit nature of the US transportation system and its crumbling infrastructure are highlighted by the situation in the “belly of the beast” of world capitalism: the New York City metro area. In a city where billions in profits are raked in each year, no money can be found to upgrade the network depended on by millions of wage laborers.

Every day—by car, by bus, by rail, by bike—workers swell the population of the island of Manhattan from 1.6 million to 3.1 million. That is a million and a half commuters from New Jersey, Connecticut, Long Island, and the 4 other Boroughs of the city spending an average of 48 (unpaid) minutes—13 minutes above the national average—commuting every morning and every evening.

According to CNBC, “A study last year from New York University’s Wagner School crowned Manhattan as the country’s top destination for ‘extreme commuting’—defined as work trips taking 90 minutes or more each way—and said that one in eight workers in Manhattan is an ‘extreme commuter.’

“Recent figures from the US Census back that up. About one-third of workers spend more than an hour each way commuting to the Big Apple; more than half have commutes of 90 minutes or more.”

Seeking to escape the vertigo-inducing cost of housing in Manhattan and the surrounding areas, millions have been forced further and further away from their workplaces. Despite saving on rent, the cost of commuting takes its toll:

“The U.S. Department of Labor finds that, on average, people spend more than $1,100 a year to commute to Manhattan on public transportation, while drivers shell out more than $2,200 for gasoline and motor oil. That figure doesn’t include tolls or other expenses.”

By Rail

The New York City subway is infamous. It is one of the largest and oldest transportation systems in the world, with the first subway running in 1904. In 2013, 1.71 billion people rode on its rails. On average, 5.5 million rides are taken each weekday. It is also infamously overcrowded, dirty, noisy, plagued by track fires, and full of unwanted passengers such as rats and bed bugs.

Although massive improvements have been made since the subway’s dark days of the 70s and 80s, New York Magazine said of the current state of the New York subway: “Beset by floods and fires and built on technology that predates the Model T, the subway, the very essence of New York, has become frighteningly fragile. And now that the MTA [Metropolitan Transportation Authority] has dug itself into a deep financial hole, it has started traveling back in time to 1975.”

The subways (and elevated trains) were originally owned by two private companies: the Brooklyn–Manhattan Transit Corporation (BMT) and the Interborough Rapid Transit Company (IRT). In the 1920s, Mayor John Hylan, a former employee of the BMT, established the Independent Subway System (IND), the first publicly-owned rail system of New York City, to alleviate overcrowding (and some say for revenge for his being fired by the BMT).

In 1940, the indebted BMT and IRT were bought by the city and eventually placed under the control of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) along with the IND. Although the subway has undergone many transformations through the years—at least superficially—it runs on a dangerously antiquated infrastructure.

In a recent report, 65% of subway delays in NYC are caused by the failure of signals and other equipment. “The signal systems on some lines date back to 1932. The levers look like the controls on the Titanic,” noted Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign.

Having overseen a 25% increase in the cost of bus and subway fares between 2008 and 2013, the MTA has announced plans to raise the fare again in 2015 and once more in 2017. “Our salary doesn’t go up but the price of the MetroCard does, I’m angry. Very upset,” said one Queens resident to the Daily News.

Along with the subways, regional rails like Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) and Metro-North Railroad are also under the control of the MTA. Every day, LIRR serves an average of 285,082 passengers throughout Long Island, and Metro-North serves an average of 281,331 in New York City’s Northern suburbs, including those in Connecticut.

Outside of the MTA’s jurisdiction there is New Jersey Transit, which covers the bus, light rail, and commuter rail service for the entire state of New Jersey, the largest statewide transportation system in the country. Despite a growing ridership, NJ Transit has faced continual service cuts, fare increases, and spending freezes over several years.

Last May, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie announced a cut of $14.8 million to the budget of the already under-funded system. This, on top of $120 million in damages to hundreds of locomotives and train cars that were stored on a flood plain when Hurricane Sandy struck in 2012, despite repeated warnings by NJ Transit workers to management.

The lack of regular maintenance, due to austerity, results in perpetual signal problems along the rails that NJ Transit shares with Amtrak and Conrail—with the latter two having the right of way, further compounding the problems. Bad signals regularly cause delays that often result in the cancellation of trains, leaving riders crammed like sardines.

Skipping stops without prior warning is another, now normal, result of these delays. This is combined with the barely coherent express vs. local schedule on many lines, which leaves most riders crossing their fingers in the hope that the muffled voice coming through the PA listed theirs as a stop for the train.

Angered by these woes, social media has no shortage of pages with titles like “NJ Transit Sucks,” “Delayed on NJ Transit,” and “F**k NJ Transit.” NJ Transit also has only a 2.5 rating on Yelp. Buzzfeed even published a “28 Signs You Commute on NJ Transit” list which highlights some of these issues. The URL address for that article—which reads “25 signs. . .” seems to indicate that they thought of even more complaints after initial publication.

In mid-2009, construction began on a massive $8.7 billion “Access to the Region’s Core” rail project. It was to construct a new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, terminating in a new train station adjacent to Penn Station in Midtown Manhattan. The aim was to alleviate the constant problems of the NJ Transit and Amtrak rail bottleneck between Newark and New York. However, after $600 million was already spent, Chris Christie halted the project, citing potential cost overruns.

commutersShortly after, Amtrak announced a similar plan called Gateway, but funding for this has yet to materialize. Another idea was to extend the New York Subway 7 line to go into Secaucus, New Jersey—finally linking millions of New Jersey commuters to the New York City subway. But this remains just a fairy tale, for now. While these increasingly unaffordable systems allow millions to access New York City, they too, like the subways, are grossly mismanaged, underfunded, and poorly maintained. Derailments, mudslides, equipment and signage failure, and more, highlight the precarious situation the region’s commuter rails are in.

According to Newsweek “. . . these days, the rail’s [Metro-North’s] increasingly delay-plagued service to one of the planet’s largest metropolises seems less an odd contrast of Third World and First World and more a taste of Dante’s Inferno.” In the same Newsweek article a rider spoke bluntly, “Honestly, it’s gotten to the point where hitchhiking a ride to work with a serial killer seems like a more pleasant way to travel than commuting another day with Metro-North.”

Other rail systems like Port Authority Trans-Hudson (PATH) suffer similar problems of delays caused by constant signal problems and overcrowding. The rush-hour commuter on the PATH is lucky to find an empty space on the train, let alone a seat. Also, as New Jersey’s closest connection to the NYC subway, the PATH train seems to be in a fare increase race with the MTA. On October 1, the fare jumped from $2.50 to $2.75, a 10% increase—far outpacing inflation, nevermind wage increases.

By Bus

While the MTA’s buses have experienced a few upgrades in recent months, such as new and expanded routes, the quality of the ride isn’t much better than that on the subway, and the expansions are extremely limited. For example, one glance at the map of the LIRR reveals an interesting problem: multiple train lines running parallel the length of the island, never meeting. This leaves those needing to travel the width of the island with no options but the very limited bus service.

Those commuting by NJ Transit buses have it no better. In addition to the frustrating traffic jams—on nearly all roads, bridges, and tunnels, at nearly all times—the waits at the dangerously overcrowded Port Authority Bus Terminal at Times Square and the hundreds of bus stops throughout the state are grueling. In May 2014, only 85% of buses left the Port Authority Bus Terminal on time, and that’s just the beginning of the ride.

The “dead zones” in NJ Transit bus services throughout the state are also absurd. The bus line schedule is still based on decades-old population dispersals. As a result, newly developed areas housing thousands in apartment complexes have absolutely no access to mass transportation—although, more likely than not, they are only walking distance from the nearest abandoned train station on a now-defunct commuter rail line.

Poor New Jersey

The New York metro area perhaps highlights most clearly the absurdity of the US federal system. Way back, in 1664, New York and New Jersey—then colonies of the British—were created. The borders have changed very little aside from a series of border skirmishes in the 1700s. Had it not been for the arbitrary border it is likely that much of Northern New Jersey—Union, Essex, Hudson, Bergen, and Passaic counties—would have been incorporated as an additional “borough” of what is today New York City.

That theoretical entity would be the most populous borough, with nearly 3.5 million inhabitants. Yet, while the New York Jets and Giants sports teams make their home in New Jersey, the state is not integrated into a logically centralized transportation system with the rest of the metro area.

In “all roads lead to Rome” fashion, the center of the subway system in New York City is located in the lower half of Manhattan. Manhattan just so happens to be the westernmost borough of the city, closest to the major population centers of New Jersey. This is excluding Staten Island which is completely severed from all subway service in the city—connected only by expensive express buses and a (for now) free ferry to Lower Manhattan.

By Car

New York and New Jersey are no strangers to corruption, organized crime, and scandals. While New York City has been able to live down that image over the past few decades, New Jersey seems to be legitimizing the stereotype.

The Bridgegate scandal—involving the politically motivated closing of lanes on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge during rush hour—has likely muddled Governor Chris Christie’s hopes of running for president in 2016. Although the investigation is still ongoing, it has raised a lot of questions about seemingly needless lane closures throughout the region, which is an all-too-common fact of life.

More trouble lies ahead for Christie, as there is another scandal—referred to as Bridgegate II—involving the landmark Pulaski Skyway, famously featured in the intro sequence to The Sopranos TV show. $1.8 billion of the money earmarked by the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York for the “Access to the Region’s Core” project was later put towards the Pulaski Skyway rehabilitation project. It was claimed that the bridge is a major access route for the Lincoln Tunnel. This is under investigation by New Jersey federal prosecutors because it is not a major access route for the Lincoln Tunnel. This once again raises the question of why Christie pulled the plug on “Access to the Region’s Core.”

Built in 1932, the Pulaski Skyway connects Newark and Jersey City and is one of the major routes for access to the Holland Tunnel. The steel truss bridge spans both the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers. After 82 years, and with only superficial maintenance since 1984—that’s 30 years ago—it was deemed necessary to rehabilitate the bridge. The dangers of this neglect are illustrated by a Star-Ledger article:

“Horizontal structural beams are so corroded they are dotted with gaping holes, and at some points the steel is as thin as a sheet of paper. ‘It’s like a wafer cookie,’ said state Transportation Commissioner Jim Simpson as he stood on the platform of a lift truck underneath the Skyway near Tonnelle Avenue in Jersey City. ‘I can peel away the steel.’”

This resulted in the unprecedented emergency plan to close the two Northbound lanes of the Skyway for two years, leaving only the expensive NJ Turnpike and the already heavily congested 1&9 Truck Route—the route that gave rise to the need for the Skyway to begin with.

Another Star-Ledger article noted, “The research by Ramirez-Marquez’s team found that the additional commuting time increase could result in a loss of more than $750 million in wage hours over the two years.”

trafficThe Pulaski Skyway is only the beginning. A glance at the Federal Highway Administration’s report card for the New York City region’s bridges and highways, and in fact, the rest of the country, scored a lot of “FO”s and “SD”s—functionally obsolete and structurally deficient. The toll increases slated on the already excessively expensive bridges of New York City cannot save these structures from failure and can only add more contradictions to the deranged system. The crisis of capitalism and the inability of the capitalist state to fund important infrastructural projects will cause a whole new series of crises that will, in turn, certainly have a profound affect on the economy.

According to Joe Boardman, CEO of Amtrak, it will be fewer than 20 years before the tunnel serving NJ Transit and Amtrak will need to be closed for desperate repairs. He said a closure or failure of the tunnel would be “monumental, jeopardizing the economic health of the entire region and keeping thousands from accessing Manhattan and connecting to the MTA services here.”

The New York Times noted that, “The devastation there [Battery Tunnel as a result of Hurricane Sandy] has underscored how major tunnels across the region are poorly protected from extreme weather and how they will need significant modifications to prevent such catastrophic failures in the future.”

Socialism is the Only Way Forward

New York City is our modern-day Rome. It is the unofficial center of world capitalism. In Rome’s period of decline it wasn’t only the invasions of the Huns and other tribes that dismantled all that the empire had built. The Colosseum, for example, was actually deconstructed by the Romans themselves who needed the bricks—which they were no longer producing—for other projects. Today, we can see how capitalism’s inability to maintain the infrastructure in the richest country on Earth will be a part of its undoing.

Despite the debt crisis, American capitalism has managed to find billions of dollars to bomb Iraq and Syria. The inability of American capitalism to even maintain, let alone expand, the infrastructure of the country reveals the entire system to be bankrupt to the core. However, there is no shortage of wealth in society to solve these problems. The Fortune 500 corporations are sitting on more than $2 trillion in cash, nevermind their other financial assets or hidden bank accounts.

Only a rationally planned society, where the working class has collective control and ownership over the main levers of the economy, can fix the myriad of problems that capitalism has posed. Under socialism we could use the enormous wealth of society to fund enormous infrastructure projects, employing millions in union jobs with living wages and benefits. These projects could solve the imbalances of transportation and provide everyone with free public transportation. This can be done with the full democratic participation of the affected communities and the transit workers themselves. We can rearrange cities like New York to eliminate long, grueling commutes by relocating industries and replacing the vampiric housing market with a massive system of quality, affordable public housing.

But this program to transform society requires an organized, political expression of the labor movement. The 2008 crisis ruptured the faith of millions in the ability of capitalism to offer anything in the way of progress. More and more workers and youth are coming to the conclusion that capitalism has got to go. As the crisis wears on, this will inevitably be expressed in the ranks of the labor movement, which will be forced to arm itself with a political party of its own.

Such a party, armed with a socialist program, could lead the way out of the traffic jam that capitalism has got us in.


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