About New York
By JIM DWYER

Over the last two years, riders have been leaving the New York subways in a slow but steady decline never before seen during an era when population and jobs have surged in the city.

Meet one of them.

Rich Gilberto, 30, an accountant in the film industry, had a two-hour ride to Lower Manhattan from the north Bronx on Oct. 29, 2015. It was another maddening journey of 20 miles that took at least twice as long as it should have, one more last straw. “You can’t call it an express train if it stops a dozen times in the tunnel,” Mr. Gilberto wrote on Twitter.

Interactive Feature | Coming This Weekend System failure: A series of articles examining the reasons behind the problems plaguing New York City’s subways.

That day, it turned out, the New York subways set a modern record by carrying 6,222,769 passengers — double the ridership of the busiest days of the 1980s and early 1990s. As the city’s booming prosperity continued into 2016 and 2017, transit officials naturally expected even more riders to arrive.

The opposite happened.

The number of people taking the subways dropped last year, and through the first nine months of this year is down by nearly 17 million over the same period in 2015.

“The correlation between employment and ridership has broken down,” Tim Mulligan, a senior vice president at New York City Transit, told members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board this week.

Why?

Among many proposed explanations — more people working from home, spells of bad weather, competition from ride-hailing apps like Uber — one likely factor looms over all.

The mass transit system has been failing. Transit crises have been recurring episodes in the saga of New York for more than a century. This one stands out because of how bad things have gotten in extraordinarily good times. Why this brilliant, infuriating and essential infrastructure is not thriving will be explored in upcoming About New York columns.

The sharp ends of this generation’s crisis have been emerging for nearly a decade.

As ridership was growing, service was being cut. Fewer trains are running today than in 2007, and those that are running break down more often. More than 2,000 jobs in critical areas like repairing signals, tracks and cars were unfilled. By last year, subway cars that were bought in the 2000s were failing more frequently than ones that had gone into service 25 years earlier.

Even simple measures to keep the city moving — like positioning medical help at busy stations to escort sick passengers off trains, or assigning platform conductors to wrangle crowds, or having extra trains on standby — were, until recently, curtailed.

Despite having access to the country’s biggest mass transit system, New Yorkers spend far more time getting to and from work than residents of the next 29 largest cities in the United States, according to a study by the New York City comptroller. While no one can escape the delays, a relatively fast commute has become a new dividing line between well-off and lower-income people.

Under a state of emergency declared by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on June 29, transit managers and workers are now carrying out a blitz of repairs, hiring, and programs to improve service. The cost of Mr. Cuomo’s “Subway Action Plan” is put at $830 million.

That the subways were, in 2017, on starvation rations in need of emergency cash would seem to defy gravity. Employment in the city has increased for 90 consecutive months, back to April 2010, the longest streak since at least 1950, according to Martin Kohli, the chief regional economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The public has shelled out 45 percent more money to use and support New York’s mass transit over the last decade in the form of higher fares, tolls, taxes and fees. What looks like a bounty, though, is an illusion. Less and less of that goes to actual transit operations.

Instead, a growing share pays down loans, including some taken around the turn of the century to pay off earlier loans. Avoiding politically fraught tax or fare increases, Gov. George Pataki and state legislators in the early 2000s employed the ill-advised trick of using one credit card to pay off another. Some of the money was originally borrowed to buy equipment that, like those political officials, would be scrapped not long after the refinancing.

That includes subway cars that were overhauled during the 1980s and 1990s with borrowed money. Having finished out their useful life to humans, they now serve as artificial reefs for fish in the Atlantic Ocean.

Absurd as it is that transit users are, in effect, paying mortgages on houses for fish, those bills are but a fraction of a swelling mass of transit debt.

Every second of every day, the M.T.A. pays $83 in interest. That’s $7.1 million in 24 hours; for the year, a total of $2.603 billion. Those costs consume 16 percent of the transit agency’s budget, nearly three times as much as in 2002, according to the state comptroller, Thomas P. DiNapoli.

In a few years, debt service will be one dollar in every five spent by the M.T.A., the comptroller estimates.

Because governments borrow money at low interest rates by selling tax-free bonds, debt can be a prudent way to pay for assets like machines and structures with long life spans. These are known as capital equipment. But few other major transit systems in the world heap as much of their capital debt on riders as New York does. Instead, they draw on other sources, like taxes or congestion pricing. New York’s approach shields governors, mayors and state legislators from such unpleasant tasks by shifting the burden to future riders, well clear of the next election cycle.

By law, in a competition for budget money, debt service always comes in first. No such law protects riders. To repay the loans, money has been siphoned from service and maintenance.

“It’s as if the system is having a nervous breakdown, putting at risk all our city’s great advantages: our economy, our environment and our mobility,” said Gene Russianoff, the staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign and the city’s leading transit advocate for four decades. “And what did we expect? That generations of indifference would not exact a toll on the subways?”

Rich Gilberto has moved from the north Bronx to Harlem, closer to work. “People miss meetings, auditions, dates — potentially life-changing opportunities, because of unknown problems trapping you underground,” Mr. Gilberto said.

He has another way of putting more time in his day: he avoids the subway altogether. “Luckily, I’m in a comfortable enough financial situation where I can spring for an Uber or taxi,” he said.

An exodus of the exasperated.

Correction: November 17, 2017

An earlier version of this article misspelled the last name of the chief regional economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. It is Kohli, not Kohl.