I found myself glancing over a map of the New York City subway and in a sense, marveling over the expansiveness of the subways. The current system may fall short of the dreams from the 1920s and 1930s; after all, where are those grand Second System routes or the Utica and Nostrand subway extensions? But we live in an age in which it takes a decade to build a two-mile, three-stop subway, and the system as it exists represents a fortuitous alignment of political will and corruption, reckless spending and a disregard for the lives of construction workers.
Today, subway expansion moves at a far more leisurely pace. A one-stop extension of the 7 line to 11th Ave. and 34th St. won’t be ready until late 2013, and Phase 1 of the Second Ave. subway is still at least five years away. After that, the MTA’s capital plans slow to a halt. With no long-term environmental studies under way, the best hopes for subway expansion rests on the shoulders of Phases 2-4 of the Second Ave. Subway. We’ll probably find a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow before that comes to pass.
Right now, the MTA is working to find a way to continue even its current meager slate of very expensive construction projects. The authority has put forward a budget for the next three years that rests on assumptions. It assumes that the city will fork over some dollars. It assumes that the federal government will sign a check. It assumes that Albany will do something, anything, to help continue infrastructure construction projects in New York City. Few people are comfortable with those assumptions.
The voices speaking out the loudest have come, of course, from the advocacy arena. The politicians have been deadly quiet. Kate Slevin of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign expressed her concerns that the MTA’s proposed spending plan relies on too many assumptions, and already those assumptions are breaking down. “If any of them,” she writes, referring to and listing the various assumptions, “don’t play out as the agency hopes, the whole plan could fall apart.”
The first to go, as TSTC itself noted, is federal funding. In the latest infrastructure bills making the rounds in the House, the MTA comes out behind. TSTC provided this dire summary: “In particular, House Transportation & Infrastructure Chairman John Mica’s proposal for the next federal transportation bill would cut federal funding to the state by $7.2 billion over the next 6 years and would cost the state almost 45,000 jobs in the first year alone. If the House bill is enacted, federal transportation aid to the state would be cut by about a third, which would decimate both the MTA and the New York State Department of Transportation’s unfunded capital construction plans.”
The MTA’s current funding plan assumes over $4 billion in federal grants. If even $1.2 billion of that is stripped away, as TSTC notes, the impact could be devastating. That cut would be the equivalent of canceling all Metro-North maintenance and improvement work for the next three years; or canceling all subway station renewal, rehab and accessibility work for the next three years; or delaying much of the East Side Access project indefinitely. That is a future no one wishes to contemplate.
Streetsblog sees these assumptions and fears that the MTA will take on more debt to fund projects whose revenues cannot truly support bonded debt. A financial crisis then is ticking ever nearer for the MTA. Forget, then, about dreaming big; forget even about dreaming small. We likely won’t see any semblance of a fantasy map pass for reality any time soon, and the system we have soon — along with the few additions currently under construction — are all that we’re going to get for some time. That’s a shame.