Home Capital Program 2010-2014 State transportation officials bemoan lack of funds

State transportation officials bemoan lack of funds

by Benjamin Kabak

In an appearance in front of a construction industry event on Friday, New York’s transportation officials said, in the words of Streetsblog, are “so cash-strapped they don’t even have enough money to maintain existing infrastructure.”

Noah Kazis was on hand to hear this bureaucrats argue for better funding, and the picture for every agency from New York City Transit to the Port Authority to the Department of Transportation is a dire one. “How reliable do you think that is?” Transit’s engineer Frederick Smith asked of the system’s 70-year-old signaling system. The MTA, of course, has funding for its current capital program for only two years and is struggling to maintain a state of good repair underground.

Kazis’ piece explores some of the avenues available to the state that could generate revenue for transit. He mentions congestion pricing as a possible revenue stream, but with so many state authorities struggling to get by, the money generated by a pricing mechanism would be in high demand. Ensuring that the revenue from a New York City-based pricing scheme it goes toward improving New York City-based transit should be a primary concern for advocates.

At the MTA, officials are focused on trimming the fat. Kazis reiterates how the MTA wants to reduce its operating budget by $750 million annually, but while those cost savings could hypothetically be transferred to the capital budget, as Hilary Ring, the MTA’s director of government affairs, said, those cost savings will generally work to avoid future service cuts and fare hikes as the MTA comes face-to-face with increasing debt payments.

Kazis’s indictment of the entire event though highlights one of the problems that authority heads weren’t willing to consider on Friday. He wrote: “One cost-saving device that didn’t get mentioned, of course, was getting tough with the contractors sponsoring the conference. Instead, the too-close-for-comfort relationship between public agencies and the industry was on full display. Describing the head of the General Contractors Association, NYS DOT Director of Civil Rights Warren Whitlock said that ‘her leadership on behalf of her industry is advancing our agenda,’ as if there was no daylight between them.”

Without a serious commitment to cost reform from the construction industry, the state’s transportation infrastructure costs will continue to be prohibitively expensive. It shouldn’t cost $4-$5 billion to build two miles of the Second Ave. Subway, and yet, that price tag has remained too high for years.

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4 comments

Rob September 28, 2010 - 10:28 am

I have been a worker at an MTA agency for 10 plus years and have been hearing about ESA since I cashed my first check. ESA is a boondoggle of the highest order , it’s high time Walder and Co. be honest with the ridership. The MTA should forget all the grandiose cap projects that will never get finished and should concentrate on restoring service , reduce prices and make the existing service world class. When that is accomplished then and only then should the MTA expand. It makes no sense to gut the existing service to add service that doesn’t exist yet.

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Andrew D. Smith September 28, 2010 - 2:21 pm

Revenue accounts for far less of the problem than costs. Devise a system that creates cost reduction incentives for every single person doing construction — be they in the public sector or at a private contractor — and you’ll eventually decimal point on the cost figures on space to the left. Then you can maintain service and expand, without asking taxpayers for ever increasing percentages of the money they earn.

I know it’s hard for transit advocates and others who want more public services to turn against the people they have always seen as their allies, the people who work in and with the public sector, but it’s time for you guys to wake up and realize that those people are your enemies to a far greater extent than any nasty Republicans. Their ability to make ever more money for doing ever less work at ever slower rates is the thing that has ended the expansion and improvement of government services. We just can’t afford them till we get costs under control. But we, too, could be Madrid if the people who support transit would use the fury that they currently use to demand more revenue for something productive.

But until you guys focus on costs, nothing is going to happen. Conservatives will never do it for you. They don’t want to spend any extra money on public services, so it actually helps them when it’s expensive rather than cheap. It makes their case — no more spending on this stuff — far more compelling.

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Christopher September 28, 2010 - 3:36 pm

A few years ago Dukakis wrote a nice piece about maintaining costs… it’s more than just a system. It also requires the right people in positions of power that both have the ability to negotiate tough but also the authority too which goes to systems. We really need better managers who are able to wrestle with contractors.

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Robert Hale September 28, 2010 - 7:51 pm

On one hand, I agree that there is too much coziness between decision makers and special interests. There is, in fact, both a cost problem and a revenue problem. As long as transportation projects rely on the general fund, there will always be rampant corner cutting and kickbacks. The only way that is going to be fixed is if the state funds all transportation projects via dedicated taxes that lawmakers can’t touch.
But on the other hand, I’m sorry–this is New York, not Kansas. A project of such a scope as the Second Avenue Subway in such a densely populated area is going to cost big money. Yes–there is plenty more that we could be doing to control costs, absolutely, but you’re going to get some waste with any big agency, public or private. At the end of the day, with infrastructure, there is no easy going and no shortcuts. You get what you pay for.

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