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NYC’s 24-hour subway service may be coming to an end

Written by
Clayton Guse

Bringing New York City’s subway into the 21st century is no small task. Whether it's updating a profoundly outdated signaling system or performing maintenance on interlocking and tunnel infrastructure, a systemwide overhaul is currently expected to take 50 years to complete. 

But one think tank believes that, with a few key changes, the work can be completed in just 15 years. How? By eliminating or cutting down on overnight service on subway lines across the system. 

The recommendation comes from the Regional Plan Association (RPA), which released its extensive Fourth Regional Plan on Thursday, detailing 61 actionable steps that can be taken to improve the New York metropolitan area’s infrastructure, housing and environment, which would allow the region to continue to thrive for decades to come.

“The highest priority is modernizing the subway system,” RPA president Tom Wright said during a media briefing on the new plan, adding that “the era of the 24/7 subway system in New York City has come to an end.”

On weeknights from 12:30am to 5am, there are an average of 85,000 passengers on the New York City subway system, the RPA points out. That accounts for roughly 1.5 percent of the total daily ridership. The association’s plan says that by shutting down subway service during that time, crews would have a larger window for routine maintenance and construction. With the trains out of service, straphangers could theoretically turn to a beefed up overnight bus service, which would be able to run more efficiently during the wee hours of the night.

The RPA’s plan to renovate the subway doesn’t stop there. The group also recommends that the MTA “adopt policies with a greater tolerance for longer-term outages (as the MTA is already doing for the L train repairs),” and that by shutting down entire line segments for 12 to 18 months, the entire system could be modernized at a much more rapid rate. 

In order to ensure that these changes are implemented efficiently and are free from political tides, the RPA also recommends that the Governor’s office establish a new Subway Reconstruction Public Benefit Corporation to create “a transportation system suitable to meeting the needs of the largest, most dynamic metropolitan area in the nation.”

The recommendations put forth by the RPA do not have a mandate and carry zero weight of law but are quite influential nonetheless. The organization has been around for 95 years and during that time has provided key recommendations that have helped shape New York City into what it is today. In its first plan in 1929, the RPA laid out a blueprint for the transportation and open space networks that New Yorkers have grown to take for granted, including the location of the George Washington Bridge. In 1968, the recommendations helped lead to the formation of the MTA. And in its third plan in 1996, it called for the Second Avenue Subway to be constructed, commuter rail tunnels underneath the Hudson River (now called the Gateway Program) and a connection between the Long Island Rail Road and Grand Central Terminal (or the imminent East Side Access Tunnels).

In short, these folks aren’t a bunch of crackpots drumming up radical ideas for New York City—they're some of the leading engineers and urban planning experts in the country, and their recommendations are taken very seriously by the powers that be. 

If the RPA’s plan to modernize the subway is put into action, New Yorkers can expect to see more line shutdowns, more late-night bus rides and, in the long run, better and more reliable train service.

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