Over the past few weeks, as I’ve looked ahead to a new MTA Chair, a new Mayor of New York City and a new future for the MTA’s capital programs, I’ve often mentioned the need for a champion for each ongoing expansion project. The current slate of capital programs all had their vocal and forceful proponents, but right now we’re not seeing too many voices for transit expansion. What happens then when those voices fall silent?
During the current age of MTA expansion, each capital project has come with a powerful funding partner. The new South Ferry, currently in post-Sandy limbo, came about due to the largesse of the federal government. It was a post-9/11 recovery project that allowed the MTA to expand and straighten a platform that served as both a tourist connection to Battery Park and a lifeline to the subway for Staten Island ferry riders. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but the money was essentially free.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen similar stories with a varying group of supporters. The East Side Access — arguably the least bang for the city’s buck — had then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato pushing for it until he was blue in the face. He eventually secured considerable federal funding and, of course, a 20-year construction and planning timeline. We could debate the merits of that one forever.
More immediately, the two ongoing subway extension projects have local boosters. Mayor Michael Bloomberg incorporated the 7 line extension into his grand plan to attract the 2012 Olympics to New York City. When that bid fell through, he maintained some of the subway plan in order to bring development to the Far West Side, Manhattan’s so-called Final Frontier. It is, in essence, his lasting gift to the isle of Manhattan. For the Second Ave. Subway, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver served as cheerleader-in-chief.
In each case, New Yorkers — taxpayers — are paying a lot and not getting enough for their dollars. The MTA’s construction costs remain higher than just about any other transit agency or country throughout the world. But still, these projects march on because some politician or another wanted them at the right moment in time. The MTA has conducted the environmental impact studies and bid out the actual work, but the politicians have led the charge.
We’re quickly reaching a point in city history where these efforts will wrap and nothing will take its place. Christine Quinn, as Nicole Gelinas noted, had no grand expansion plans despite her call for mayoral control of the MTA. John Liu may not know what a subway is; Bill de Blasio wants more and more federal money; and Sal Albanese, a long-shot candidate with the best transportation plan around, has yet to call for any specific expansion project. Meanwhile, in Albany, Silver hasn’t made any noise about future Second Ave. Subway phases, and the Governor is more concerned with realizing the Tappan Zee Bridge boondoggle than with any transportation projects that would improve interconnectedness to and throughout New York City.
Now, subway expansion failures are not for lack of trying. The MTA and RPA have pushed the Triboro RX plan on and off for nearly two decades (though more on than off), and Diane Savino seems to think she can get a Staten Island subway just by throwing a fit about it. Meanwhile, Bloomberg wants his 7 train to Secaucus but time is fast running out on his term. Other ideas — a Rockaway Beach Branch line reactivation, a Nostrand Ave. extension, future Second Ave. phases — are out there awaiting a movement.
But no one is taking this bull by the horns, and until someone does, we’ll be left with nothing. Over the next year, the MTA will request funding for its next five-year capital plan, and it might just be the least ambitious one yet with a focus instead on behind-the-scenes maintenance and upgrades. Without a champion or a voice in Albany, City Hall or D.C., the subway system will remain as it is once Phase 1 of the Second Ave. subway opens, and New Yorkers will be left wanting someone to raise a stink about it.