On the two elephants in the room with the MTA’s capital plan

By · Published in 2015

As the dog days of August melt away, transit news generally grinds to a halt. Generally, the subways keep running through what the MTA feels are low ridership days, but until the September opening of the 7 line and the next round of MTA board meetings roll around, action on outstanding items is slow. Instead, we fill the hours debating other issues surrounding livable streets and livable cities and wonder how we wound up with a supposedly populist who’s even considering removing popular populist features of New York City.

But that’s neither here nor there for this morning’s purposes. Today, we revisit the MTA’s capital plan. It’s been a few weeks since Gov. Andrew Cuomo committed to delivering over $8 billion in state funding for the five-year program. We still haven’t heard if the city will take Cuomo up on his challenge to contribute more money, and we don’t know how the state is going to generate that $8 billion. New York can’t just print money, and the Governor has spent the last few years rolling back the MTA-supporting payroll tax. He seems downright hostile as well to support of a Move New York-esque traffic pricing plan, and the mayor hasn’t leapt to pick up that mantle either.

Those are issues that are going to have to be solved in the coming months, but interested parties watching the happenings are growing sick of waiting. Enter Crain’s New York. The business magazine opined on the need to just fund the darn thing already in an editorial by three members of the Business and Labor Coalition of New York’s Infrastructure Initiative Committee:

New York’s commitment, or lack thereof, is a reflection of our state’s priorities and an indicator of our future. According to the General Contractors Association of New York, 83% of subway stations are in poor repair, 37% of MTA’s mainline signals have exceeded their useful life, and tunnels and bridges in dire need of repair are too numerous to name. Simply fixing the system, debt aside, requires a serious capital investment. Completing projects conceived to improve the current system—including the long-awaited Second Avenue subway—requires, at the very least, the funding of the five-year capital plan approved by the MTA board of directors.

Again, this is not merely a matter of transportation, safety or convenience. The 2010-2014 capital program generated 350,000 jobs and $44 billion for New York state. According to the New York Building Congress, the MTA alone accounts for 25% of New York’s construction industry.

The governor is concerned about how to pay for the capital plan and does not want to raise taxes. This is understandable on both a political and practical level. However, it is absolutely necessary that the governor, mayor and legislature find a way to fund this plan.

Crain’s editorial is important because it touches upon the first elephant in the room: It’s impossible for the state economy and construction industry to live without the MTA’s capital plan. It generates such a significant amount of work and jobs that letting the money lapse without a real way forward would be tantamount to financial suicide. The General Contractors Association has long been on the side of the MTA’s when it comes to asking for money, and the 2015-2019 capital plan is no exception.

And yet, the contractors are also the second elephant in the room and one no one wants to discuss. Setting aside for now the fact that the MTA’s five-year plan asks for significant funding for projects that don’t yet have set budgets, the agency’s construction costs are out of line with other transit agencies the world over. For a sampling, read through Alon Levy’s various posts on cost comparisons. The MTA is asking for approval for a $28 billion plan because that’s what their costs are alleged to be, but $28 billion simply doesn’t go that far in New York City. You could build Crossrail 2, for instance, three times over with $28 billion, and nothing in the MTA’s capital plan approaches the scale of London’s massive expansion efforts. Similar, the 125-mile Paris Metro expansion is set to cost only around $30 billion total.

So these are the two elephants, competing or perhaps different sides of the same coin. We can’t live without the MTA capital plan because of the effect it has on the construction industry, but the construction industry seems to be forever pushing us toward an unaffordable cliff. Reconciling these two competing interests should be a part of the MTA’s five-year planning efforts, but so far, it has been noticeably absent from the conversations.

45 Responses to “On the two elephants in the room with the MTA’s capital plan”

  1. proudtexangrandma says:

    I think another issue adding to this is that many New Yorkers remain ignorant on the funding woes. Many people just don’t realize the magnitude of the deficit. People blame the MTA when they really should be putting some of that blame on Cuomo for our crappy infrastructure.

    I see ads from Uber attacking DeBlasio. Why not do the same for transit?

    • AG says:

      Cost of transit construction projects have very little to do with this Cuomo. Costs have bee out of control for a LONG time. Way before he was elected. There is no reason that cities that are on average – more expensive than NYC can build rail projects for less. It’s crazy.

  2. Larry Littlefield says:

    The only not terrible news about the MTA Capital Plan is that with a building boom going on, the agency shouldn’t be doing any infrastructure work anyway. The contractors would just win the bid at sky high prices and then not perform until all the private work dried up.

    Basically, established organizations are becoming nothing but a ripoff economy-wide.

    The MTA should look to shed them. If it’s in-house, like the LIRR, consider privatizing. If it is now done by private contractors, like the signal replacement program, consider taking it in house.

  3. Nathanael says:

    Import out-of-state construction firms.

    Though Larry’s point is also well-taken. If it’s in-house and badly operated, contract it out… if it’s contracted out and badly operated, do it in-house.

    The point is to get rid of the bad organization.

    • AG says:

      Politics. A public project using out of state firms would be BIG political problems. Plus they would new to be from overseas that have these type of complex projects (global cities). I wouldn’t feel confident in places in this country having the right expertise.

      • Bolwerk says:

        The right expertise for what? Any medium-sized railroad has the expertise to lay track and signaling, as do numerous contractors around the country that work for them. A lot of other work is retiling, painting, reinforcing, rewiring, grading, installing ramps, and so forth. Pretty much stuff most construction and general contractors anywhere wouldn’t have trouble with. Likewise, any American firm dealing with electrical work should be familiar with all the work going toward things like transformer replacement, substation rehabilitation, etc..

        Other things might take more specialization. Seismic reinforcement of, say, a large bridge might take a more specialized civil engineering firm? I dunno.

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      I should have mentioned, did anyone get that propaganda from the construction industry about replacement costs?

      They released a report that said the replacement cost of the city’s transit infrastructure is X, and since you should expect to reinvest 3-4 percent of the value of a capital asset each year, the city’s construction industry should in fact be getting multiples of what it is already getting to maintain it.

      First of all I had always heard reinvestment at 2 percent of replacement cost, not 3-4. More importantly, how did the contractors come up with that replacement cost? It was based on the high prices they have recently charged! Because we get more, we deserve to get more still, and because we have gotten more than that, we deserve more again! It’s like executive pay.

    • pete says:

      Forbidden by Davis Bacon Act.

      • Nathanael says:

        No, I don’t think so. That only regulates the wages for the workers.

        That does not regulate the grifting done by the contractors in the form of bad planning, installing things which are wrong so they can remove them later, lollygagging, etc…

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          That doesn’t cover the grifting done by the consultants. And the grifting done by lawyers who sue because the consultants didn’t dot every “i” with the right kind of dot. And the people who then sue because they weren’t notified the new dots were being used in the revised report.

    • Anonymous says:

      Except for the fact that some things just can’t be done in-house.

      Maintenance, yes, but constructing new infrastructure in-house requires a lot of investment in workers and equipment, so unless you plan on constantly building new tunnels under NYC (maybe not a bad plan, who knows)

      Can’t the MTA start writing DBFM contracts to at least force companies to not deliberately put in low bids which always end up higher? (if they are as stupid to put in ridiculously low bids and don’t manage to complete it with the money, have them carry the risk)

      In Europe it has put a couple of construction companies (almost) out of business because they thought government would eventually put in the rest of the money as they had always done in the past. They didn’t, and suddenly they’d have to pony up all the money themselves.

      • Nathanael says:

        I’m actually pretty sure that the MTA & NYC should be continuously building new tunnels under NYC. Do you really think we’ll get to a point where the city’s infrastructure is “completed”? I don’t think so!

    • Alon Levy says:

      Skanska routinely bids on New York subway contracts.

  4. Avi says:

    The biggest elephant right now is weekend track work not being completed on time and disrupting the entire IRT rush hour service.

    • tacony says:

      Right? That’s pretty odd.

      Are so many people on vacation right now that the MTA (and the media who would normally be flipping out about it) basically don’t consider a Monday rush hour to be a Monday rush hour this week?

      Or is this just the new normal? Track work is now just done on weekdays anyway! Keep lowering our expectations for the service provided here…

  5. Thomas Graves says:

    It is indeed interesting that – apart from this board – there is virtually no discussion anywhere of the outrageously inflated costs of transportation infrastructure in New York and what to do about them. As noted, $28 Billion – even if fully funded – buys damn little in NY; a fraction of the expansion the same money achieves anywhere else in the world, including cities with overall higher cost of living than Gotham. It’s been pointed out that US costs are overall out of line with global standards, but I note that Portland was able to build the Tilikum Crossing over the Willamette River (1720 foot bridge for MAX light-rail and streetcar lines, plus emergency vehicle and biking lanes) for $134.6 Million, and have it all finished in 4 years (it opens next month). Any guesses as to what the same thing would have cost in New York…?

    • Larry Littlefield says:

      “It is indeed interesting that – apart from this board – there is virtually no discussion anywhere of the outrageously inflated costs of transportation infrastructure in New York and what to do about them.”

      Cuomo and other politicians have called the capital plan “bloated.” By that, unfortunately, they usually mean they want no system expansions for the city (only the suburbs), and deferred maintenance — not lower prices.

    • Bolwerk says:

      That’s because, in this case, the MTA-hurr-union-hurr-big-city-hurr-libruls meme is taking on a life of its own and a lot of people are uncritically exaggerating just how not far enough this money is going. Yes, costs are inflated sometimes, but the ~$18B segment of the capital plan* attributable to NYC Transit is replacing ~80 miles of track, pouring billions more into signal upgrades throughout the system, buying almost four figures of new cars, refurbishing over 20 stations – and those are some of the bigger points. At least that was the plan earlier this year.

      We’re talking about probably $3-4 billion a year for NYC transit† so we can have a working system at all. Everyone chill the fuck out about that. It should be separated from the other problem of totally necessary expansions being too expensive or not being discussed at all.

      * It might be less now, thanks to dick Andy.

      † I leave LIRR and MNRR out of this. They might really be malfeasant.

      • Larry Littlefield says:

        There are legitimate issues in the reinvestment in the existing system too. The cost of signal replacement soared when all the railroad signal contractors merged into one.

        Meanwhile, the cost of somewhat similar technology for autos — GPS systems — plunged, and the technology advanced rapidly.

        While capital costs have soared, there have been gains in efficiency for anything funded by the operating budget (ie. real cash money taken from people today, not debt stuck on people tomorrow). All the work done on Fastrack for example.

        • adirondacker12800 says:

          GPS doesn’t resolve well enough for railroads with more than one track. It doesn’t work in tunnels.

          • Larry Littlefield says:

            I understand that. But look at the direction things are going in, and how quickly. Not to mention all the research into self driving cars.

            A railroad is a mostly fixed and self contained environment. That should be much easier to deal with.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              That’s what people have been saying for decades. It doesn’t work out that way.

              • BDawe says:

                Self-driving trains exist. They’re safe and reliable. They don’t need operators, much less rediculous MTA conductors

                • Henry says:

                  They exist, but they don’t exist in an existing system that runs 24/7 and constantly does service changes like ours. If each individual line was hermetically sealed from the rest and closed for a couple hours every day, installation of CBTC would be much easier.

                    • Henry says:

                      That was outfitted from the start with AnsaldoBreda’s CBTC, with AnsaldoBreda trains. I’m sure that if we were to build the subway from scratch, it would be a lot easier to install CBTC as well. Queens Blvd CBTC is going to need to both accommodate on-the-fly service changes and trains transitioning seamlessly from wayside to CBTC signalling.

                      It should also be noted that very few systems share the feature of the New York transit system, where all the outer borough trunks interline differently with all the Manhattan trunks.

                    • Alon Levy says:

                      London has the same extensive reverse-branching on the subsurface lines that New York has nearly everywhere. I don’t know if the subsurface lines have the same capacity as the tube lines, though.

                      At any rate, the reverse-branching means that New York should try to install CBTC on isolated systems. It started with the L and the 7, and the next step should be the 1-6 (and not the QB Line). The problem is that it costs a lot more per km than it costs to automate lines in Paris. The lack of nighttime shutdowns can’t really explain it – on a four-track mainline, weekend shutdowns of single tracks are routine, giving a much longer window of work than just a few hours of nighttime maintenance.

                    • Henry says:

                      The sub-surface is supposed to get CBTC eventually, but they’ve continually run into problems due to the complexity of the SSR, so they’re largely in the same boat as the Queens Blvd CBTC when it comes to that regard. In fact, the project is so complicated that not all of the SSR is getting CBTC; the Picadilly Line will continue to use wayside signalling under the current plan.

                      The 1 and 6 are operationally isolated, but it wouldn’t be the best idea to do those separately, since those trunk lines do see service changes from time to time where express trains run local. On top of that the 1 has some of the oldest equipment on the IRT, and the 6 is getting the oldest equipment due to the Flushing Line CBTC and the lack of money for brand-new rolling stock. The non-Flushing Line IRT also has a relatively newer ATO system, so in the context of the MTA’s limited funding, it doesn’t make much sense to rip out the ATO and put in CBTC. Queens Blvd is probably the busiest outer-borough trunk line in the city, so it makes sense as to why they’re doing it there.

            • Henry says:

              To install CBTC, you need wayside infrastructure. The satellites that run GPS were put into the sky free courtesy of the military; in the subway for CBTC, you’d need backup systems, dependable fiber, cab signalling, etc. The GPS just tracks you; CBTC is trains actively talking to both each other and a command center. The equivalent of that in cars would be self-driving cars that can talk to other cars and the traffic lights three blocks ahead, and it will be decades before cars can do that.

          • Eric says:

            CBTC for the Queens Blvd line is expected to cost $900 million, which equates to about $50000 per meter.

            Can you think of an electronic device of any sort which costs $50000? Can you imagine putting one of these super-special devices every meter? The cost inflation is just insane. And it’s not like other countries are paying this much – some cities in Europe and Asia have built brand new subways for the cost NYC is spending to resignal an existing subway.
            (Source: )

            • Larry Littlefield says:

              I told them back when I worked there that if this is what it is going to cost, based on the total income of everyone living in New York City, we can’t afford it.

            • adirondacker12800 says:

              New York and Chicago are the only places in the world that have long stretches of 4 tracks. New York may be the only place where is it where it’s 6 tracked.
              The custom made itty bitty things don’t have wings. Someone has to go out into the tunnel place them, test them, figure out why they aren’t working the way they should – it is very difficult to get critical life/safety systems to work they way they should on the first try – attempt a fix, test it again…. 900 million is a bit pricey. It’s not going to be as cheap as slapping a wireless router on your desk.

              • Larry Littlefield says:

                The problem is it is much higher than it used to be, adjusted for inflation.

                But the income of the people paying for it is not.

                • adirondacker12800 says:

                  Because they found that it wasn’t going to be as simple as they thought it was going to be.

                  • Larry Littlefield says:

                    We need breakthroughs. It can’g go on like this.

                    • Henry says:

                      Unfortunately, because the amount of systems that have our level of interlining and service changes is very low, if innovation were likely to happen, we would be the most probable guinea pigs, since we are installing the most complex systems in the oldest system. For technological advancement to occur, there have to be real life applications first; you’re not going to simulate the Queens Boulevard Line in a lab. That’s why the L signalling took so long; CBTC wasn’t really done to upgrade existing systems before then, especially not lines that are 24/7 or as overburdened and deteriorating as our trains.

              • Eric says:

                And yet the L train resignaling cost $17000 per meter, even though it’s only two tracks and has no special features. And that $17000 was over a decade ago, it would be more if we did it now.

    • Alon Levy says:

      $134.6 million for a bridge of that length is really unimpressive. Overall, Milwaukie MAX is about $180 million per kilometer, which is about average for a subway and “behead them all publicly for wasting public funds” expensive for light rail.

      There aren’t actually that many places in the US where rail construction costs are sane. They’re sort of sane in LA (read: twice as high as they should be, rather than five or ten times as high), but that’s about it.

      • Eric says:

        I think light rail in smaller cities is often reasonably priced. For example, St Louis Metrolink averaged $17M/km overall, and $33M/km for the Cross County extension which is entirely grade separated (a minority tunneled).

        • Eric says:

          …checking again, it’s not *entirely* grade separated, there is one street crossing, and a couple stations where pedestrians can cross the tracks. Still, it includes a substantial tunnel and a number of bridges.

        • Nathanael says:

          Eric is correct. Although high by Spanish standards, most of the smaller-city LRTs are coming in at perfectly respectable prices. Minneapolis/St. Paul prices were perfectly respectable, for example.

          Of course, in Minneapolis/St. Paul:
          — one contractor was used for the west half of the Central Corridor and a different contractor for the east half
          — when the east-half contractor built unsatisfactory things, the contractor had to rip them out and rebuilt them right *at the contractor’s own cost*

          Which is how it should work. It’s also not how it’s been working at the MTA.

          • Nathanael says:

            I mean, it’s obvious that contractors got away with all kinds of shoddy, substandard stuff in NYC — just look at the “new” South Ferry station with all the leaks.

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