When last we saw the MTA’s 2010-2014 five-year capital plan, it had just been rejected by the state’s Capital Review Board with the lone and costly nay vote coming from Gov. David Paterson’s representative on the board. Today, authority CEO and Chairman Jay Walder reissued a revised draft of the five-year plan that has trimmed $1.8 billion from the initial requests and does not ask Albany for any additional funding right now.
“We are overhauling every aspect of our business here at the MTA, and we’ve taken the same approach with the Capital Program,” Walder said in a statement. “The revised program reduces costs, generates operating savings and takes an entirely new approach to our critical investments. The economic crisis dictates that we use every dollar wisely, but it also demands that we move forward as soon as possible to stimulate the economy with the funding available right now.”
By and large, the big-ticket items and overall goals of this next five-year plan remain as they were this past fall. The MTA will still explore a Smart Card fare-payment system with a six-month pilot between the MTA, New Jersey Transit and the Port Authority set for this summer. (After all, as Walder said today, why should the MTA stick with the MetroCard, a 1980s technology, when most people don’t rely on anything from the 1980s at home or work any longer?) The agency will continue to refine and promote its component-based repair program while discarding with its unattainable state-of-good-repair approach. And, of course, the capital plan still has a funding gap that approaches nearly $10 billion.
The authority, however, isn’t worried about the funding gap. The first two years of the capital plan are appropriated through last May’s Albany funding package, and Walder stressed that he will be more than willing to work with the city and state to find the money for the plan as the economy recovers.
The revised plan, Walder explained to reporters this afternoon, has taken a four-pronged approach. First, the MTA has set forth a few money-saving provisions based around the idea of One MTA. To shore up capital investments, the authority is looking to see how it can share resources across subagencies. For example, a new repair plant at Harmon will service both Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road locomotives at significant cost savings for the MTA. “Are we making the best use of our physical plant?” Walder said the MTA asked while developing the revised plan.
Second, Walder explained how he won’t approve a capital expense that isn’t designed to reduce operating costs. If, for example, a $120 million facility is proposed to replace a 100-year-old structure but doesn’t reduce the MTA’s overall costs, it won’t get the OK. On the other hand, a new Smart Card system should improve operating efficiency. “There is no reason,” Walder said, “why the financial return should be separated from the service returns.”
Third, Walder talked about how the MTA analyzed its capital plan to insure targeted investments. In non-industry speak, this basically meant promoting the component-based plan. As Walder has toured the station and spoken with riders, he’s come to understand that straphangers were prefer to see incremental immediate upgrades that fix a glaringly obvious problem with their stations than renovations that won’t arrive for two or three decades. If a station is leaking, if it needs paint, the MTA can address those problems today and make the ride nicer for everyone. “The idea that we’ll ever get there,” he said of the elusive state of good repair, “is a bit of an illusion.”
Finally, Walder said, the last approach involved embracing the maxim that “the best is the enemy of good.” Instead of planning for state-of-the-art countdown clocks long the B Division by 2025 as the original timeline dictated, Walder said the authority will look to for in-house solutions that are good enough and can be online sooner. “We must accept the concept of getting the technology out there that provides value to people,” he said. He wants innovation in a time frame that “makes sense.”
In the end, much of the plan remains the same (and you can find the Executive Summary of the revised proposal right here as a PDF). The authority will continue to work on the East Side Access project and Phase I of the Second Ave. Subway. It will continue to work toward ADA compliance, and it will explore designs for LIRR extensions. It will order more rolling stock and build out its bus rapid transit plans. But the authority knows it must convince the state the capital investment is vital to the future of the MTA, the city and the state.
The new plan goes to the MTA Board on Wednesday for a vote, and a final draft will then be sent to the CPRB. The MTA says it will create 20,000 jobs for the state and generate $37 billion in economic activity. Hopefully, this time, the governor will approve, and investment in the system can continue.