During the MTA Board and Committee meetings this week, the agency will present a detailed breakdown of its request for capital funds to repair the transit system after Hurricane Sandy swept through. Overall, the MTA is asking for $4.755 billion, nearly all of which the agency expects to receive from the federal government and insurance. The MTA is also asking for permission to bond out $950 million should the need arise, but what’s missing from the document speaks nearly as loudly as what’s in it.
In the document — available here as a PDF — the MTA stresses in no uncertain words the need for approval for this money. The addition of nearly $5 billion to the MTA’s capital tab should have no impact on the operating budget, but doing nothing is not an option. “There are no viable alternatives to the proposed action,” the staff summary reads. “Delaying repair work could result in further service delays, increased safety risks, and lower reliability. Further, it is not tenable to substitute existing funds supporting ongoing capital projects for these restoration projects.”
That’s not new, and neither is the MTA’s estimated cost projections. We know South Ferry, for instance, is going to cost $600 million to repair, but now we can see why. The new document contains cost breakdowns, and maybe it makes this price tag a bit easier to swallow. It’s now just $600 million for one station that, a few years ago, cost $540 million to build from scratch. Rather, it’s $600 million for a comprehensive repair of a large station complex and nearly all of the technology within.
According to the PDF, the South Ferry/Whitehall Station costs combined will add up to $600 million. Of that total, $350 million will go toward station repairs, $20 million will go into line equipment repairs, $200 million will go into signal and communications equipment repair, and $30 million will help repair traction power. It seems clear from this breakdown that the $600 million does not include work inside the Montague St. Tunnel. Although there is no line item for the individual tunnels, the total for other signal work reaches $770 million.
No matter how we slice and dice it, it’s still a lot of money, and the bulk of it will go to South Ferry. After all, Whitehall St. is already open and in revenue service. Still, with South Ferry totaled and Whitehall not unscathed, the costs mount. We still need a serious examination of how the MTA spends money and why projects cost so much though before we can be completely satisfied by this price tag. Whether we will get one remains an open question.
But as I said, this document is notable for what it doesn’t have as well. It doesn’t have any details about preventative measures. The MTA wants nearly $5 billion to repair and restore its transit network, but it doesn’t yet know how much it needs to protect the system or what those protections will look like. As two MTA officials said to me during my last Problem Solvers event at the Transit Museum, it’s just too early to know what to do. It’s too close in time to the storm and too many resources are devoted to repair and restoration work.
For now, that’s OK. It’s important in the short term to bring the transit system back to where it was before the end of October, and for now, the MTA should be spending its limited resources on that approach. But that conversation needs to happen. It should happen this week as the MTA’s Finance Committee and full Board assess the funding request. It should happen as repair work moves forward, and it should happen after repairs are completed. The next storm will come, and it can’t cost $5 billion each time.