On the MTA’s Capital Construction accountability problemBy
Last week was a rough one for MTA Capital Construction. A few hours after we learned that East Side Access will cost $10 billion and will be delayed until 2021, the MTA’s Board materials revealed the news that the 7 line extension wouldn’t be opening in June after all. It could be ready by September; it could be ready by the fourth quarter of 2014. Either way, it wasn’t a good way to end the week.
Over the past decade, delays and cost overruns have become the norm. The first phase of the Second Ave. Subway was supposed to be in service a few years ago; the 7 line was originally proposed for the 2012 Olympics; the Fulton St. Transit Center had an initial opening date of 2007. On a smaller scale, we’ve seen station rehabs fall months, or in some cases years, behind schedule, and something as simple as a staircase redo or an elevator repair can seem endless.
The litany of missed deadlines and cost overruns for only the MTA’s megaprojects could fill a post, and I’m not going to recite them here again. Everything is late, and nothing is on budget. The latest news though has New Yorkers casting a wary eye toward Second Ave. If these other projects are late, can we reasonably expect the Second Ave. Subway to open on time in December of 2016?
That question itself has no easy answer, and there’s some controversy behind it. Back in July of 2009, a federal report questioned the MTA’s own timelines. While the MTA’s worst-case scenarios then predicted an opening date of July 2017, the feds didn’t see the project reaching completion prior to August 2017 and noted that construction could stretch into 2018. The MTA aggressively disputed that account.
At the time, MTA CC President Michael Horodniceanu, in no uncertain words, committed to a 2016 date. It was, he said, “set, as far as I’m concerned, in stone.” He did warn that the MTA has “a variety of factors that many times are unanticipated.” It was a firm commitment with a hedge, but since then, the MTA has taken pains to repeat their belief that the Second Ave. Subway will be ready by mid-2016. The feds haven’t revised their estimates one way or another. (Note that when the MTA announced the 2016 date, it also believed East Side Access would open in 2016 as well.)
In materials released for Monday’s meetings, the MTA reiterated its 2016 launch date for the Second Ave. Subway, but should we expect it? I don’t have a firm answer, but with history as our guide, I’m not placing any bets. The MTA hasn’t delivered a major project on time yet (and we can dispute whether a 2016 launch date for the East Side’s new subway line should even be considered “on time”). I’m struck though by something Horodniceanu said when discussing the Fulton St. Transit Hub back in 2009. “What I present today,” he said of plans to open the new hub in 2014, “I stand by. I expect you to hold me accountable to it.” This came years before a bunch of politicians called the 7 line extension “on time and on budget” a few weeks ago. It was a laughable claim then just as it is now.
The appeal to accountability is the irony in Horodniceanu’s five-year-old statement as public accountability, at least, has been lacking. No one has been held accountable for the failure to realize deadlines, and nothing much has changed over the past decade of capital works. Later on Monday, Horodniceanu will take the spotlight when he presents the latest on East Side Access, and the accountability should start now. If our transit network is to expand, the MTA has to figure out why these projects’ initial budgets and timelines are so wrong and how it can avoid these problems in the future. After a bad week, New Yorkers needs that accountability now more than ever.