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A decade in transit: 10 highs and lows

It was a decade of more stops than starts for the city’s subway and bus system.

The MTA experienced bellweather moments, with bullish expansions in the subways and big infrastructure improvements.

But the agency’s finances crumbled as the decade wore on. Rampant borrowing and chronic state underfunding caught up with the MTA, and straphangers paid the price with incessant fare hikes and threats of widespread service cuts.

“It emphasizes how fragile the financial picture is,” said Neysa Pranger, of the Regional Plan Association, a transit think tank.

Here are the 10 top transit stories from the 2000’s:

1. One fare hike after another
The MTA’s mountain of debt finally caught up with it this decade. As new funding fell through in 2000 and revenue declined in the later part of the 2000’s, the agency turned to straphangers to bear part of the burden with four fare hikes, including back-to-back increases in 2008 and 2009.

“The system is always starved for money. That’s not the right way to run a transit system,” said MTA board member Andrew Albert.

NYC Transit riders now pick up the tab for 43 percent of operating expenses, the second highest rate in the nation. Fares will increase again in 2011 and 2013.

2. Doomsday service cuts
Drastic service cuts loomed for the early part of 2009 as the MTA passed a “doomsday” budget to help fill a $1.8 billion budgetary gap. The state came through with a rescue plan, but new funding cuts brought back proposals to significantly reduce service.

In addition to eliminating the W and Z trains and curtailing service on other subway and bus lines, the latest proposed cuts include phasing out discounted student MetroCards, a move that could hurt some 525,000 students.

“The year isn’t ending on a high note,” said Gene Russianoff, of the Straphangers Campaign.

3. Transit strike
The 2005 transit strike paralyzed the city during the holiday season. As temperatures plunged, millions of New Yorkers spent three days walking to work or cramming into cabs after thousands of transit workers participated in a work stoppage.

“That was a pretty rotten time,” said William Henderson, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA.

The strike triggered hundreds of millions in economic losses, but it did inspire a city pilot program allowing strangers to share cabs.

4. Subway crime falls
Even though the decade ended on a gruesome note with the stabbing death of a D train rider in front of shocked straphangers, crimes in the subway fell to the lowest level in years during the 2000’s, with major felonies down 70 percent between 1997 and 2009.

Meanwhile, technology increasingly played a role in subway crimes, with iPods and BlackBerrys became a target for robbers, and camera phone snapshots helping police chase down perpetrators.

5. Major new construction
The subway system expanded for the first time in half a century, with the MTA finally starting to dig the Second Avenue Subway. The line has been plagued with cost overruns and delayed deadlines, although officials pledged this year to get it running by 2016.

The decade also saw the beginnings of construction to expand the No. 7 train to the Far West Side. Service expected to be up by 2013.

The MTA also started work bringing Long Island Rail Road service to Grand Central Station.
“It’s been a mixed bag,” Russianoff said.

6. New subway cars
New trains started making their way through the system in 2000, with nearly 4,000 digital cars now in operation. The cars are cleaner, safer and allow for clearer public announcements.

The agency phased out two of its oldest car classes in 2009, and train failures were 20 times less frequent in 2009 as compared to 1982.

“That’s unbelievably good,” Albert said.

7. Subway crowding
With record ridership, some subway lines hit their capacity, making for a unbearably cramped ride.

The Nos. 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 lines, along with the E and L trains, all operated at or above capacity on average during rush hour, according to 2007 NYC Transit numbers.

8. Bus service expands
The city and MTA started tackling the traffic that clogs bus service, providing dedicated lanes for some routes. A faster payment method debuted on one Bronx bus line, and 34th Street shelters got clocks detailing the next arriving vehicles.

The MTA also invested in hundreds of new buses, helping breakdowns to sink to the lowest level in department history in 2009.

9. Technological improvements
After 16 years of planning, the L line finally got electronic boards listing the next arriving train.

However, the system still doesn’t offer Wi-Fi, and some stations lack basic public announcement systems.

New agency leaders appointed in 2009 pledged to reverse the technological dry spell.
“The commitment I made ... was to do whatever we could to accelerate the technical improvements,” said new NYC Transit chief Thomas Prendergast.

10. Opaque finances
The MTA cannot live down the “two sets of books” allegations from 2003, when the agency was accused of inflating its deficit to justify a fare hike. A state appeals court declared it untrue, but lawmakers to this day still use it as an excuse to deny the MTA funding.

“You repeat something often enough, and people start repeating it themselves,” Albert said.

Other notable transit moments this decade:
2001: V line begins service after a $645 million tunneling project

2003: AirTrain to Kennedy airport starts

2003: Goodbye to the token after 50 years

2004: Subway system turns 100

2004: Service over the Manhattan Bridge returns

2005: No. 9 line ends service

2007: Water from heavy rain make its way into the subway system during rush hour, delaying service on every line and prompting the MTA to beef up its flood prevention

2008: Subway ridership peaks to the highest levels since 1951

2009: New South Ferry station opens, the first new station in 20 years

2009: Ceiling at the 181st Street station on the No. 1 line collapses

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