On day one, Jay Walder, MTA CEO and Chair, and I talked about the fiscal state of the authority. On day two, I presented his views on labor relations and alternate revenue sources. Today, we start with a topic near and dear to my heart: the Second Ave. Subway.
We all know the story of the Second Ave. Subway. Eight decades in the making, the MTA is finally building part of the badly-needed line. Phase 1 of the SAS, one of the MTA’s three ongoing megaprojects, is due to be completed at the end of 2016 and at a cost of $4.5 billion. I quizzed Walder on the future of the rest of the project. Today’s is a longer segment so let’s dive right in.
Second Ave. Sagas: One of the main thrusts of my site is the Second Ave. Subway and the capital expansion plans. I know there’s still some funding needed for Phase One, but I have to assume it’s too far along for the plug to be pulled. The political ramifications from Washington, from the City, from the MTA would just be too great to stop the project. What do you see as the future of the Second Ave. Subway? Do you realistically see a Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 4? How long should we expect that to take?
Jay Walder: My focus almost exclusively has been on the fact that we have three megaprojects that we’re doing right now. These are the first megaprojects that we have been doing for a generation — we’re really talking about 70 years depending upon how you count the stuff that has happened. My focus has been on ensuring that we’re able to deliver these projects on the budget and the schedule that we’ve laid out. As you note, our capital program is not funded with all of the money necessary to complete these projects right now, and that remains a concern. We need to find a way to ensure that we are completing these projects.
At the same time, my other concern is that the mantra of this organization has been that we have to bring our existing system back to good repair, and we need to keep it in that condition. There’s much to be proud of in that regard. I started in this organization in 1983. When I started, the mean distance between breakdowns on subway trains was 7000 miles. It’s about 150,000 miles today. That’s a startling difference. You go around and you look at our station environment, and your jaw drops. Some of the station work is so nice and it’s been brought back — either bringing back the existing stuff and some of the artwork we’ve put in, and other things like that.
But in fact, what this system is is a huge system that in essence is composed of lots of unseen hidden infrastructure that’s depreciating and deteriorating all the time. We need to continue to invest in that. The scarier thing is not the trains and the station. The scarier things are the signals and the pumps and the track and the shops and the other things that continue to need huge amounts of investment.
We have a subway system today that has one line — exactly one line — that has modern technology for signals. The L train is the only line on which we’re using communications-based train control. We’ve now awarded a contract for the second line on the Flushing Line. But really, this is the type of technology that we need to be using across our system now. We are fortunate that we don’t have the red tags and the track problems and the other things that were going on in the late 1970s and early 1980s but we don’t have that because we invest hundreds of millions of dollars every year in the normal replacement of tracks. So that’s where I’ve been focused so far.
If you look at the Second Ave. Subway piece, to their credit, the planners with the way they set this up are achieving a very usable segment of a railway so that when it opens in 2016, you will have something that will connect into the rest of the system, is a usable railway and will make an immediate difference in what happens. You’re well-placed point is that if we don’t stop there, where do we go from here? The intent is that it goes south from there, and funding-available, that is exactly what everyone’s objective will be. We also have pieces of preexisting tunnel north so you may well have the opportunity to pick up both ends of that.
Second Ave. Sagas: The people I’ve spoken of say Phase 2 would be easier to build out than the other phases, but they wonder what the appetite for a project that’s taken longer than initial thought, that costs more than initial thought. Where will the money come from or the will and drive to see it through?
The costs of doing this type of work in New York has proven to be hugely expensive, and one of the things we really need to find a way to be able to do is to reduce the costs of undertaking these types of megaprojects.
Walder: I think those are fair questions, and my focus has been on exactly what we have right now. Embedding in that is a question about how the costs of doing this type of work in New York has proven to be hugely expensive, and one of the things we really need to find a way to be able to do is to reduce the costs of undertaking these types of megaprojects.
We’re fortunate that we have these projects underway. I firmly believe we will bring these projects in on the budget and the schedule we have. I firmly believe we are going to complete these projects. I don’t think they’ll fall to the same fate as ARC, but I think the pressures that ARC faced in terms of the costs of being able to do this are equally pressures we’re facing on this side of the Hudson River as well. One of the things that’s very hard for a global city to do — one that’s competing across the world and across the country — is to have a cost structure that’s so far out of sync.
We have to find the way to be able to do that, and I don’t fully know the reasons why that is. I’m not actually making a judgment about why or what the solution is. I’m just making more of a judgment that the outcome is an unacceptable outcome. You can’t continue to be in that place because I don’t believe the region will have the economic capacity to support that unless we can be as efficient as other parties are at how to do that.
Second Ave. Sagas: In 2008, your predecessor presented his grand vision for the MTA, the next 40 year plan, which included the Triboro RX line and more interconnectedness. Do you have a sense that the agency can realize those plans? Is it still floating in the background? Or right now, is the focus on the more immediate needs?
Walder: I think my predecessor had the advantage — and I sometimes tell Lee [Sander] this although he didn’t have it at the end — at the beginning of being in a robust economic climate, and one that seemed to support in many ways vision and thoughtfulness. New York in that era of the early-to-middle part of the first decade of this century has hatched a lot of plans. I think that’s great.
I have found myself in a somewhat different position. I have felt it is my responsibility in this economic climate to concentrate on executing what we have in front of us right now. I think I’ve tried to do three things: 1. To reduce the cost structure of what we have. It’s fundamentally important to the credibility of this organization. 2. As you say, I’m very focus to delivering immediate and short-term improvement, and I like to believe that we are. The use of technology for maybe the very first time at the MTA is actually providing customer benefits in a way that people have been asking for in a long time — the countdown clocks being a primary example of that, the cameras that are going up on the SBS route on First and Second Ave. to finally be able to enforce our bus lanes in a way that is consistent with what a bus lane is supposed to be, the achievement of wi-fi and cell phone service in the subway which will be there in a few stations next year and will pave the way for the rest of it to be done, the connection of 3700 security camera which has happened and is now connected as well into the NYPD.
I think my focus has been to say that New Yorkers are not exactly known for their patience. While I think grand plans and vision are great — and I’m a big fan of it — but now is not the time for that. Now is the time to honker down.
The other point is that we need to deliver on our capital investments. People want to know that we’re delivering the big projects and also for all of the other capital investments that we’re making. No one can ride the subway on a weekend and not be hit by the magnitude of the work that we’re doing. I won’t be apologetic for that. We’re going to have work. What I do think is that we should be accountable for getting into a place and getting out of a place, for doing it efficiently, for really utilizing our track outages in a way that gets the most out of what we can do.
Second Ave. Sagas: I know you mentioned earlier this year looking at if it would be possible to shut down lines entirely to speed up the pace of work. Is that still under consideration?
In keeping with these economic times, we have to be willing to think outside of the box — perhaps closing lines for short periods of time, getting in there, blitzing a ton of work, 24-7, just go in there and do anything you can possibly imagine and get it done and get out.
Walder: We’re still continuing to look at that. I am struck by [the fact that] ridership has gone up by 50 percent since 1995. The growth and the use of the system means that it is exceptionally difficult to pick up people onto other places in the system. I do think we need to continue to look at it. We have situations where we are taking things out of service but doing it in a partial way in order to keep services running. It’s hampering the efficiency in the way that we’re able to deliver things. It comes back into the cost side of the house. In keeping with these economic times, we have to be willing to think outside of the box — perhaps closing lines for short periods of time, getting in there, blitzing a ton of work, 24-7, just go in there and do anything you can possibly imagine and get it done and get out. Other cities have done this.
Even in London where a situation that you never want to have, we had a safety issue that occurred on the Central Line. As the name applies, it is literally in the middle, and if you said to people before that happened, could we take the Central Line out of service, the answer would have been “are you insane?” But we took the Central Line out of service for two months because we didn’t have a choice and people had to adjust.
If we’re going to go down that path, we have to do it exceptionally carefully. We need to be well-planned in what we’re going to do. We need to be thinking about how we give people alternatives and really work to give people that. I’m not sure we’re yet all the way there to answer those questions.
Coming tomorrow in the final segment: What future the MetroCard?