Aug
11

An interactive way to track a capital plan

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In its quest for more budget transparency, the MTA today unveiled an online dashboard that tracks the fiscal and physical progress of its various capital projects. Available online right here, the interactive tool allows members of the public to examine project proposals, budgets and schedules from the comfort of the web. The information will include every item in the 2010-2014 capital plan as well as some big-ticket projects from the 2005-2009 plan.

“The Dashboard provides an unprecedented level of detail and information on our capital projects,” MTA CEO and Chair Jay Walder said in a statement. “From station improvements to the purchase of equipment, signal improvements to updates on the Second Avenue Subway, the Dashboard will allow anyone to monitor the MTA’s new approach to capital projects designed to keep the 2010-2014 Capital Program on schedule and on budget — all with a few clicks of the mouse.”

In a press release, the authority said the dashboard is designed to combat claims that the MTA has anything to hide. With projects that are routinely over budget and behind schedule, the MTA is trying to improve public oversight of its big-ticket construction projects while working to “reinforce the agency’s commitment to provide information to customers that is more concise and easier to understand.”

When the dashboard is up and running, it will provide extensive details on the various capital projects, including milestones and year-by-year funding. Since the capital plan was, however, only recently approved and many projects are still in the planning stages, everything appears to be both on time and at budget. It is an MTA utopia of capital investment.

Despite the nascent nature of this new tool, MTA watchdog organizations and transit advocates praised the authority’s drive toward transparency. “I believe the MTA has taken a significant step in providing MTA managers, public officials and the public itself a more user friendly tool to track the progress, in dollars and time, of capital projects,” MTA Inspector General Barry Kluger, whose office has long pushed for a dashboard, said. “I am particularly gratified that MTA has accepted the recommendation made in our Dashboard Report to make it a more transparent and useful reporting tool to the public.”

What makes this tool particularly useful — as long as it’s regularly updated — is how it removes the mystery from the capital program. For example, let’s look at Transit’s plans for rolling stock purchases. We can see information for 123 A Division cars for the 7 line at a cost of $291 million; 290 B Division cars at a cost of $638 million; and 50 additional B Division cars for $110 million. Although the dashboard doesn’t offer up more information on these purchases, it provides a glimpse into the MTA’s plans. Similarly, we can glimpse at the $200 million plans for SmartCard installation and await a future free of the swipes of the MetroCard.

For the MTA, this productive use of its website deserves a nod today. As ill-informed politicians continue to decry the MTA for being too opaque, the authority is using the tools at its disposal to combat those perceptions. The real test of its willingness to be forthcoming though will arrive as project budgets climb and timelines are delayed. As long as the MTA can easily admit that its work is lagging, it can begin to earn public and political trust.



19 Responses to “An interactive way to track a capital plan”

  1. Scott E says:

    This is more valuable than some might think. It really provides insight as to what the MTA does and why it does it; there are lots of projects (switch replacement, bridge rehabilitations) which are intended to maintain current levels of service, yet are capital costs, not operations/maintenance costs. I’d bet, however, that this will bring redundancies across LIRR/MNR to the forefront, and we’ll see more of a push to consolidate the two.

    Good job, Mr. Walder.

    • Sharon says:

      their should also be some serious talk about a long term goal of merging lirr and metro north rail car and rail power allowing lirr trains run up metro north and vise versa. One train could travel from huntington to harrison providing service to yankee stadium etc

      • Merging the physical plant and merging operations are two different projects though. I’m not sure of the technicalities behind merging lines, but I think merging administrative operations should come first.

        • Sharon says:

          Agreed. The technicalities of merging the physical operation has been not possible in the past due differences power pickups on cars and other subsystems. With the mta buying new cars and upgrading power systems many of the costs can be overcome by working to a common standard. Non electric train sets can already be run on both lines. Union issues are another problem. We need Oboma to change the status of LIRR and MNR to allow them to operate more like the subway system they are and not follow FRA railroad rules which among other things requires extra crew members and heavier trains that cost more to buy and operate. The mta has been wanting this for decades.

          • Scott E says:

            A waiver from following FRA rules – are you kidding? PATH has such an exemption because it does not share track with anybody. Metro-North, on the other hand, shares track with the Amtrak’s high-speed Acela service, as well as diesel and freight service, and has at-grade road crossings. The FRA rules are safety-related and are in place for a reason.

            • Adam G says:

              The FRA rules require heavier trains than any country in the EU, and it’s very debatable whether this actually increases safety. MNRR and LIRR /are/ mainline railroads and /should/ fall under FRA jurisdiction, but the FRA regulations absolutely need to be substantially revised.

              • Alon Levy says:

                Debatable? Why, were there any objections to Caltrain’s simulations showing that FRA rules do not increase crash safety except at a narrow range of relative speeds?

            • Alon Levy says:

              Caltrain just got an exemption, despite sharing its line with freight trains.

              Mind you, most of what you say has nothing to do with FRA-compliance. The FRA’s rule on grade crossings is stupid (trains must sound their horns unless the crossing has four-quadrant gates), but doesn’t have much to do with compliance. The subway and the SIR had grade crossings until the 1960s, and the Chicago L still has a few. The Acela is protected by a positive train control system, which provides absolute time separation. This leaves diesel freight trains, which are conveniently about to be protected by the same system, too, after a major accident in LA proved that FRA-compliance is no substitute for good train control.

              The specific FRA rule Sharon’s talking about, besides the buff strength, is a rule demanding that every train have a conductor. This may be a little harder to get out of, but a) it’s feasible and common in Germany and Japan, and b) even going down to one conductor would be a huge improvement over five conductors.

              • sharon says:

                The contact less fare system for commuter rail could force all riders to tap their pass or credit card on boarding at the door and other locations and tell the ticket taker who can use a tablet to see who paid and who paid

                What’s the difference between a ticket taker and a conductor

                Conductors need to understand train operational issues. You do not need 5 of these guys per train. I conductor and maybe a second lower paid ticket taker.

                Oboma has signaled that he may be open to waiving other FRA rules to allow for high speed trains he is pushing

                • Alon Levy says:

                  You don’t need a contactless smart card to have proof of payment. Germany, Austria, and Switzerland have had POP with paper tickets for decades, running trains with just one operator, zero conductors, and random fare inspections.

                  The difference in salary is probably not as important as the difference in the number of employees. Only a fraction of trains has to be checked, reducing costs; on each train, the inspectors only stay until they finish inspecting, allowing them to cover more trains than a traditional conductor would.

                  Where contactless cards are useful is in reducing fare collection costs. Sony sells $35 devices that you can connect to your computer and recharge your card at home. The tap stations on buses and trains are more expensive, currently at about $640; this is still low enough to allow installing one in every commuter rail car, allowing people to buy a ticket on board without a conductor. The current cost of a TVM, $50,000, is too high to make this economic.

          • Andrew says:

            Who is Oboma?

  2. Chris G says:

    Scott. Good points.

    Being a frequent traveler I get to see how other services are run and in my top 3 complaints about NYC when I come home is that the services are not integrated and consolidated.

    In Sydney for example you can ride any of the services except the monorail and the light rail with your normal ticket. Commuter rail, their version of the subway, ferries, buses. All on one ticket.

    So if this dashboard brings about an effort to consolidate the systems, I am all for it.

    Plus the geek in me loves construction projects and all the info on them I can get.

  3. Boris says:

    I wish the NYS DOT had anything remotely like this. With the Gowanus Expressway reconstruction project in its Nth (where N > 10) year, I want to see how many billions were poured into this monstrosity.

  4. JK says:

    I’d like to see the next governor instruct his MTA board appointees and the Chairman to make MTA budgeting truly transparent with a 20 year downloadable operating budget and a capital project dashboard which goes back at least a decade. The MTA better has the information displayed above for the last two capital plans and they should post it. It is a trivial effort to post this previous data. They didnt because they are embarrassed by what a disaster the last capital plan is with late and overbudget mega-projects: Fulton, ES access, and of course 2nd Ave. But transparency is taking the good with the bad. I think you were charitable with your assessment of this dashboard release.

  5. Al D says:

    Perhaps they can also add some form of dashboard that shows the precipitous drop in city and state funding over say the last 25 years?

    • Alon Levy says:

      Precipitous drop in operating funding… capital funding is very large. It goes in the wrong places, but it’s there.

    • sharon says:

      Maybe they can have a dashboard that shows the rise in union pay and benefits and how certain rules drives up cost by 10-15% . How many $25 an hour plus benefits cleaners do we need

      or how TWU members can get 6 months paid leave to attend college. What does that have to do with providing train service

      Or how about all the supervisors who do little to no supervising of employees. How many times do I need to see a station sleep in the booth overnights. Ride the 4th ave line where you can see the agent as the train goes by. Counted two agents with heads down last weekend when they sent my D train local

  6. JP says:

    This is a very good thing. Thanks for posting.

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