It’s no secret that the MTA has long struggled with opening dates for their capital projects. From staircase replacement projects to supposedly normal state-of-good-repair work like the Culver Viaduct rehabilitation to the 18 month-and-counting drama at the site of the 7 line’s future 34th St. terminus, the MTA simply cannot deliver on time. Whether it’s due to union featherbedding, contractor corruption, or the complexity of large-scale infrastructure work, the problem affects the agency’s credibility and New Yorkers’ collective ability to enjoy a subway system.
Along the Far West Side, the MTA’s troubles with getting the 7 line extension past the finish line and more comical than anything else. No one lives there yet so lives haven’t been disrupted and promises that were broken were made originally only to convention goers. The real estate interests constructing the Hudson Yards development will have their subway long before the buildings are complete.
The Upper East Side though is a horse of a different color. The MTA originally hoped to finish Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway in 2011 and then planned for a mid-2015 debut. As early as 2009, the agency had to push back the projected completion date to 2016 with a threat that work would continue into 2017. For Upper East Side residents who have lived with construction for nearly a decade already, further delays now would be infuriating.
Meanwhile, in 2009 and again in 2011, the Federal Transit Administration disputed the MTA’s timeline. While the agency pledged to open the $4.4 billion Phase 1 project by the end of 2016, the feds viewed a $5.5 billion extension opening in early 2018 as the most likely scenario. Over the past five years, the MTA has doubled down on the 2016 date while New Yorkers, rightfully skeptical of the lessons learned (or not learned, as the case may be) from the 7 line, still aren’t surprised by the feds’ timeline.
Yesterday, in prepared remarks first identified by Andrew Siff of NBC 4 and later in questions posed by the House Oversight Committee, FTA officials first doubled down on the 2018 timeline but then later walked it back. Federal officials acknowledged that the MTA’s 2016 revenue service date is achievable, but both the MTA and FTA seemed to agree tacitly that it will take a concerted oversight effort by agency officials to realize this earlier date.
The FTA’s pre-printed statement is decidedly less optimistic than the FTA’s subsequent comments during the hearing. Matthew Welbes, executive direct of the Federal Transit Administration, had this to say in his prepared remarks [pdf]:
In February 2015, FTA and the MTA executed an amended FFGA for the Second Avenue Subway Phase I project reflecting the changes in cost and schedule to the project. The amended FFGA includes a cost of $5.57 billion, and a revenue service date of February 28, 2018. As in the original FFGA, the amount of Federal Capital Investment Grant funding remains unchanged, with the local project sponsor covering the cost overruns.
In government-speak, that paragraph means the Full Funding Grant Agreement between the FTA and MTA acknowledged significantly higher costs and a delayed opening date. The MTA — or in this case, New York State — will foot the bill on cost overruns.
During subsequent question by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Welbes walked back some of the FTA’s statements. When asked about the differing timelines, he provided the following explanation:
“When we executed the revised Full Funding Grant agreement in March, the schedule is that the project is supposed to open by by February of 2018. And that was based on what we agreed to with the MTA. If the MTA can deliver the project sooner, we would be proud to see that happen. It looks like the project is trending, based on our data, toward an opening of closer to, maybe early in, sometime in 2017. So the truth is probably somewhere between December of 2016 and our February of 2018 opening date. If the MTA does some of the aggressive schedule management steps that they have planned, they may very well achieve that December date.”
A revenue service start date early in 2017 wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the MTA. True, the feds’ outcome means a 30-block, $5.5-billion subway that takes nearly a decade to construct. True, those costs are higher, on a per mile basis, than any other comparable project. But for the MTA, a delay of only a few months would represent a significant improvement over its experiences on the West Side.
The MTA in response, meanwhile, defended its own timeline. “?The MTA reports our projections for megaproject cost and completion every month based on our own understanding of the work done so far and our best estimates of the work still to be done,” the agency said in a statement. They insist that the Second Ave. Subway’s first riders will be able to ride a 96th Street-bound Q train before the year is out.
For her part, Rep. Maloney urged the FTA and MTA to find a way to get this project completed by the end of next year. “I think,” she said, “that would build up a lot of credibility by everyone.” That’s no small point considering the MTA’s lobbying for nearly $15 billion in additional capital spending right now, but the concern is a missed deadline. Do you believe the MTA or the feds? And what happens when the Second Ave. Subway doesn’t open by the end of December of 2016? It’s a future no one wants to contemplate but one that isn’t too far off right now.