The 20-year needs vs. the 20-year wantsBy
In bits and pieces this past summer, the MTA set forth its vision for New York City’s next twenty years. As the city continues to grow and modernize, the MTA and its subways, buses, commuter rail lines and bridges will continue to drive the city’s economy in more ways than one, and as part of an effort to meet demand and continue to provide reliable service, the agency has been arguing since July for twenty years of investment. We know it’s going to cost over $100 billion, and today, those costs and the plan crystallized as the MTA published the 140-page 20 Year Needs Assessment.
The document itself is an impressive feat of planning and an impressive feat of chutzpah too. The MTA is asking for $105 billion over the next twenty years — or approximately the same amount it has spent over the past 30 — without including any funding estimates for expansion projects. (Stephen Smith, now writing for Next City, has more on the cost comparisons.) So the $64,000 question is: What do you get for $105 billion?
What I find most interesting about the document is the way it divides MTA needs from the MTA wants. From the start, the agency is very forthcoming in its needs. It needs $105 billion to maintain current service levels, continue toward a state of good repair and prepare the system for more usage and 21st Century technology. It wants an unstated amount for future expansion which should include a 7 line station at 10th Ave. and 41st St., the rest of the Second Ave. Subway, capacity upgrades for the West Side IRT and the Queens Boulevard line, the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch (page 127!), and even articulated train sets. The price tags for these expansion efforts — the wants — haven’t been included because the MTA, I’ve been told, doesn’t consider them part of the necessary needs for maintenance of and upgrades to the existing system.
One line in particular struck a chord. After presenting a table that shows how the MTA will spend $105 billion with the bulk of that going toward New York City Transit projects, the MTA notes how they restrained themselves. “On a fully unconstrained basis,” the report reads, “the agencies’ needs are even greater than what is included in this assessment since more backlogged state of good repair needs exist than can be implemented.”
Mull that one over a bit. The MTA wants to spend $105 billion on repairs over the next twenty years after spending $100 billion since 1982 and could spend more due to a backlog of work. That is the legacy of neglect and a tell-tale sign that a system which still employs signal components from the 1930s. To defend the ask, the report explains, “The significant investments identified in this assessment, constrained as noted above, are prioritized according to such factors as age, condition, performance, safety and reliability in order to provide the greatest service benefits and maintenance savings to the operating budget.”
In no particular order, then, the MTA has identified a variety of areas for its needs. It needs to upgrade the signal system to implement communications-based train control while bringing online B Division countdown clocks and generally making more real-time information available to the public. It needs to upgrade the city’s bus network. It needs to bring more stations into compliance with the ADA. It needs to add more transfers to streamline operations. It needs to add system resiliency in the face of changing weather patterns.
As the money adds up, though, the MTA argues that many of these needs will result in operational savings. CBTC, for instance, can allow the MTA to run more trains at lower costs. Another need — the Metrocard replacement — can improve interagency relations and reduce fare collection costs. “The future promises the ability to use a single smart card or a cell phone with a smart chip — cell phones being nearly ubiquitous in the New York region — to ride any and all of the MTA region’s transportation systems, from NYC Transit’s subways and buses to the commuter railroads,” the assessment says. This new approach could offer many benefits to the MTA, including increasing bus speeds by shortening the boarding process, reducing labor and cash handling expenses, supporting inter-modal fare payments options and improving customer service through simplified and expanded fare payment options.”
Outside of these operational needs and system upgrades, though, the MTA has capital needs as well. Combining these expenditures results in $68 billion in projected New York City Transit investments. This total includes over $15 billion for signals, $9.4 billion for stations and $8.4 billion for cars. The rolling stock replacement plans for the next 20 years include retiring cars purchased in the early days of the capital plan in the 1980s. The MTA wants to stick with a 40-year replacement cycle, and as it struggles to maintain something resembling a state of good repair, components replaced seemingly recently will near the end of their life cycles.
But what of the fun stuff? We like to dream big, and the MTA here is dreaming practically (albeit expensively). One project set for the 2015-2019 capital plan involves rehabbing the 42nd St. shuttle terminal in Times Square, the only part of that station complex that hasn’t seen work in recent years. “Work will include renewal and reconfiguration of the Shuttle station, both to improve passenger circulation and to make the station ADA-accessible,” the MTA promises. “The existing Shuttle station has various deficiencies, including circuitous customer paths, platform edge gap fillers and other components that are not in good repair, and a general station appearance that does not match the standard achieved through the rest of the Times Square complex.” The Rockaway Line will have to be rebuilt before 2034 as well.
So now what about those wants? The wants are what I like. The wants are what will continue to make the city more accessible and less dependent on cars while permitting growth in areas that are underserved by transit. Those wants are up in the air. The Second Ave. Subway should wrap at least 100 years after it was first proposed, and articulated train sets would do wonders for crowding during peak-hour subway trips. But these are projects that need more dollars and more champions. The MTA has a $100 billion need; how can it find the money for the wants as well?