Helping New York Subways to defeat crime, deficits

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science monitor

As New York City's dilapidated, crime-shaken subway system rounds the bend into the 1980s, there finally may be some light at the end of the tunnel. This is the view of local and national public-transit experts as they await both new appropriations and stronger law-enforcement action for the beleaguered 76-year-old transportation network.

he ability of New York to solve its subway problems will be a bellwether for other cities, transit experts say, because the labyrinth of problems here is on so great a scale. The 790-mile subway system is the nation's largest.

One obvious common tie exists between the New York subway system and others around the nation -- chronic deficits.

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Members of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) privately forecast that an increase of a least 10 cents in the six-year-old, 50-cent subway fare is inevitable, despite New York Gov. Hugh Carey's recent call for a new round of state taxes to hold the line on fares. A subway fare hike, the governor says, is "the most painful tax of all" because it hurts most those least able to afford it.

Controversy over the transit budget is fueled by the city's continuing subway crime wave, which shows only comparatively small signs of lessening. There were seven subway murders in 1978, 16 in 1979. In the last two months three transit policemen have been shot, two fatally (one of those two was shot in a bar while off duty). The last previous fatal shooting of a transit policeman was in 1973. Already this year, three riders have been pushed onto the tracks. Eight were pushed onto the tracks last year.

However, beefed up transit police patrols -- mostly through use of overtime rather than actual manpower increases -- have apparently helped cut down the number of robberies recently. There were 252 subway robberies recently. There were 252 subway robberies last month, a reduction of 33 percent from the 377 subway robberies in February 1979.

The current force of 2,200 transit policemen, who patrol stations and ride trains, is scheduled to be increased by 100 officers. But the plan has been sidetracked temporarily by a federal court case involving minority hiring practices. Although the court case is expected to drag on for months, an annual appropriation of $6 million authorized for the extra men is being channeled into overtime pay.

It is estimated that the City of New York would have to triple its police manpower if, as some recommed, the city were to have a transit policeman in every station and riding every train, 24 hours a day.

But such an increase is both unrealistic -- in terms of this budget-strapped city's ability to afford it -- and unnecessary, says city transit spokesman Edward Silverbarb. He says he believes, as does New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, that subway crime is exaggerated by the media. Some 3.5 million people ride New York City subways daily.

But if crime is exaggerated, equipment breakdowns are underplayed, many New Yorkers say. Breakdowns are more numerous than ever these days because the cars are not being serviced adequately, transit officials freely admit. A policy of deferred maintenance -- under which, in effect, transit vehicles are only taken out of service to correct safety problems -- was inaugurated a few years ago because the city could not afford anything else.

A $280 million state transportation bond issue, which voters approved last November, should help.

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