It’s full-court press time for the MTA’s next capital campaign. The agency unveiled its initial twenty-year assessment nearly two months ago, and last week, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast began to defend his upcoming $29 billion request. After Monday’s MTA Board committee meetings, we have a better sense of what the MTA wants, and over the next twenty years, the agency wants to spend in excess of $100 billion to keep everything running.
On its surface, $100 billion over twenty years is nearly inconceivable. This is $5 billion a year until I turn 50. This is $100 billion in capital funding. This is $100 billion with scant mentions of anything like future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, a rail connection for Staten Island or any other numerous subway expansion projects we dream up on these web pages. This is $100 billion.
But despite the humongous nature of the number, it’s not inconceivable that the MTA will spend this much, and they seem to have a plan. It’s not, as officials continue to note, a sexy plan. It involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work that will replace early 20th century technology in 100-year-old tunnels with mid-21st century technology that will allow Transit run more trains in crowded tunnels. It is, as MTA officials discussed during a board presentation on Monday, part of the natural cycle of components. Acquire or build comes first followed by operating and maintenance followed by renew and replace. Call it the subway circle of life, and it moves us all.
While the last few capital campaigns have been dominated by megaprojects — East Side Access, Fulton St., the 7 Line, the Second Ave. Subway and South Ferry — this expanded look forward at the next 20 years involves the ever-elusive state of good repair. The MTA, not assuming that the money will be there, has recognized the need to push toward that state of good repair while incorporating resiliency standards developed in the 11 months since Sandy hit to prepare the subway system for its next century.
The bulk of this work will include over $18 billion invested in the signal system, and the MTA has taken great pains to stress how large of an undertaking this project will be. Replacing signals require massive system shutdowns, and the way the MTA plans to stagger the work over the next few decades will make the recent FASTRACK treatment seem like minor annoyances. The end result will be greater capacity throughout the preexisting system, and that is likely to be the best way to meet increased subway demand.
As a benefit, the new signals will also lead to a robust countdown clock system, and here, we see another picture emerge. The public will get shiny new toys. The countdown clocks are possible because the MTA needs to know where trains are for safety and security reasons. The latter, in this case, drives the former. We’ll also get a contactless fare payment system sooner rather than later, circulation improvements at some key midtown stations, and eventually some shiny new rolling stock.
So what’s missing? Keeping in mind that we haven’t seen the MTA’s big wishlist yet, it’s worth noting that megaprojects have disappeared. The MTA is not yet proposing Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or any other rail expansion plans within the five boroughs. I expect to see funding for Penn Station Access arrive in the next set of documents to be released later this fall, but I’m bearish on the immediate future of the rest of the Second Ave. Subway. Prendergast wants it to be finished within the next 20 years; he said as much at the Crain’s New York Business breakfast last week. But so far, we’ve heard a lot about signals and not too much about system expansion.