Andrew Cuomo and the Curious Case of the $81 Million Elevator

Pianist Colin Huggins plays for subway riders at the Union Square station.
This guy is not going to take the stairs. Don Emmert/Getty Images

Earlier this year, a Connecticut woman died after she fell trying to carry her 1-year-old daughter in a stroller down a staircase in a New York City subway station.

The accident once again raised the question: In 2019, how does the subway system in the Greatest City on Earth™ not have elevators in every station?

Nine months later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority has provided us with the answer: It costs $81 million to make a station wheelchair-accessible—between three to 10 times what peer cities pay for the same work. Eighty-one million dollars for an elevator, or perhaps two. It’s a scandalous figure, and one that says as much about the state of American public infrastructure at large as it does about New York. We’re no good at this, and no one seems to care.

On Thursday, the MTA released its five-year capital plan, a $55 billion document that will dispense as much money every year as the governments of Lebanon or Ghana. This iteration of the plan is unusually ambitious, but the remarkable thing about it is how little New Yorkers will receive for their money.

It all seems a little abstract at first. The MTA will spend $5.1 billion to make 63 subway stations ADA-compliant. Few of us have ever installed an elevator in a subway station, so how would we know if it costs $10 million or $100 million?

Fortunately, New York is not the only city with a subway system that’s being retrofitted with elevators. Transit-cost sleuth Alon Levy has some comparisons from across the pond, and they are not pretty: Virtually none of our European peers is spending more than $25 million per station on elevators, and many are spending less. Madrid, Spain, is adding three elevators to a metro station for $6 million. Lyon, France, is adding one for $4 million.

It would not be the first time New York overspent a European capital on transit infrastructure. The city’s vaunted Second Avenue Subway line, which opened in 2016, cost five times per mile what a similar project cost in Paris. After a New York Times investigation revealed that project’s waste—and the complacency among politicians, planners, and engineers about the difference—the head of the MTA admitted there was a problem and pledged to improve.

And yet: The second leg of that project, included in this capital plan, will cost even more.

In July, an investigation by the Government Accountability Office all but threw up its hands at the problem of cost inflation in infrastructure. It remains, as Josh Barro wrote in New York magazine, why we can’t have nice things. New York’s examples are severe, but the same factors are at work in projects like the Honolulu Metro and the California Bullet Train. The latter project has gotten so expensive the state can only commit to building its least practical (but most politically expedient) leg, through the farmland of the Central Valley. Los Angeles and San Francisco will have to wait. One project manager told the LA Times last week he asked his children to take his ashes on the train, so he could finally ride it.

Committing to spend $81 million to build a couple elevators, you would think, might have been a moment to step back and say: Something is wrong, and we should fix it.

Instead, Cuomo will plow ahead. We’ll get our 66 elevators. We could have had hundreds more.