The feds are funding Second Ave. Subway construction efforts, but money for operations remain out of reach. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)
As part of the continued federal support for the MTA’s megaprojects, Rep. Carolyn Maloney announced this week that the transportation appropriations bill for 2011 will contain $400 million for the Second Ave. Subway and the East Side Access project. Maloney has been touting her role in delivering this money for the better part of 2010, and the grants are a welcome addition to the MTA’s capital coffers. The ease with which this money was delivered, however, lays bare the inherent contradictions in the way Washington funds construction but not operations for the nation’s transit authorities.
In announcing the grants, Maloney spoke of the economic impact of the construction efforts. “I’m proud to have helped to make sure that this year’s House transportation bill includes a $400 million boost for these two ‘megaprojects,’ which are creating thousands of jobs right here in New York,” she said. “On their first day in operation, the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access will move more people than the entire transit systems of most other major American cities. I thank Chairmen John Olver and David Obey and their colleagues on the House Appropriations Committee for their ongoing commitment to funding the Second Avenue Subway and East Side Access, which are vitally important boosts for our region’s economy.”
With this grant, the Second Ave. Subway will receive $197 million and the East Side Access $215 million. Maloney, who slammed the progress along Second Ave. in a report last fall, focused this time on the way the subway work creates jobs. For every dollar spent, she said, city GDP increases by $1.59, and the Second Ave. Subway will generate $4.347 billion in economic activity during construction. Afterward, East Side residents will enjoy quicker and more comfortable commutes as many residents are closer to a subway line, and overcrowding will be lessened along the East Side IRT.
This is all well and good for New Yorkers. We need to make sure the MTA construction projects are fully funded, but what of the other transit budget? What of operations and the need to maintain consistent and frequent service? What of helping out cash-strapped agencies avoid budget cuts?
Over the past few years, between Recovery stimulus grants, 9/11 grants and general transportation appropriations grants, Washington has sent billions of dollars to the MTA, and every single cent has gone to the capital budget. None of these billions can be used to close an $800 million operating budget. “The law is quite clear,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said. “The federal money cannot be used to cover operating expenses.”
As Maloney appeals to the economic impact of construction, the deafening inaction from Washington on the transit rescue package speaks volumes about the stilted funding priorities. A federal rescue plan for transit operations would generate billions in economic activity as well. It would keep hundreds, if not thousands, of workers in their jobs and would ensure fast transit service into and out of the city’s business areas. It would keep cars off the roads and ensure productivity remains high.
Of course, as we saw yesterday with the political support for Select Bus Service, politicians prefer to point to a concrete accomplishment. Representatives can say that they helped usher in Select Bus Service. Look how much better the commutes are. They can’t say that their millions staved off service cuts that would have been a huge headache because constituents have a tough time conceptualizing that as a true political accomplishment. That money, however, is just as important.
So we can celebrate the $197 million for the Second Ave. Subway, but at the same time, we should be wary of it. If the MTA could earn that much from Washington for operations, it wouldn’t have to cut service twice over. After all, last month’s cuts save the agency just $93 million while impacting the rides of hundreds of thousands daily. But that’s the way Washington works. Until it changes, we’re left with expansion plans that go forward while service declines.