The MTA’s next five-year capital plan is something of a mess. It’s a $28.5 billion extravaganza that underscores how MTA construction costs are out of control and increasing rapidly. The next five-year plan ekes in just below ten years of spending from 2000-2009, and the icing on the cake is a request for a few billion dollars for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway without putting a concrete cost estimate behind this next segment. It’s not hard to argue the plan is enabling rather than sustaining.
But on the other hand, it’s also vitally important for the MTA to continue ongoing upgrades, maintenance and State of Good Repair work. Without an approved capital plan, the MTA cannot continue work that ensures the subways run more or less on time 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It’s hard to overstate this point: If Albany doesn’t approve the MTA’s capital plan before the end of the year, the MTA will have to stop working on projects that maintain and modernize the subway system. No matter how overpriced they are, the work is necessary.
So, with that in mind, it’s time for New York City and New York State leaders to drop the act and come to terms on the MTA’s capital plan. For weeks, we’ve heard Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, either through himself or through proxies such as MTA head Tom Prendergast or TWU President John Samuelsen, battle it out over funding. Cuomo won’t say where the state’s $9 billion commitment will come from; de Blasio won’t promise to up the city’s paltry contribution; and now the MTA is threatening to cut New York City elements of the capital plan. Enough.
If you care to read through the recent history, you’ve got Prendergast threatening punitive cuts to the capital program that would unfairly target New York city, and you’ve got Prendergast slamming de Blasio in the Daily News. You’ve got de Blasio calling on Cuomo to explain the source of funding while expressing valid concerns that Cuomo may continue to raid MTA funding for other state purposes. Streetsblog too is skeptical of Cuomo’s take, and like me, The Observer is sick of it all.
“The governor is being small and counterproductive. He shouldn’t make the millions of New Yorkers who depend on the MTA the pawns in the next round of this gamesmanship,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “The region’s health, prosperity and growth depend on a modern, well-functioning system. This is not the time for childish tantrums or bullying.”
The solution is a simple one: Cuomo can do a better job explaining where his contribution will come from; his proxy-statement via the Daily News that it wouldn’t involve more borrowing does little to clarify the picture. He can also ensure that the capital plan is approved before the MTA’s ability to fund current work dries up at the end of the year. De Blasio, meanwhile, should commit to additional city funding, and he can look to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the 7 line extension as inspiration. The city can earmark money for a particular project — say, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or the Mayor’s pet project to send the subway down Utica Ave. — and the MTA will build it. Problem solved so long as our two fighting politicians can find some common ground.
Ultimately, the MTA’s capital plan is suffering from bloat and lack of reform. When the next five-year plan includes higher costs and ever diminishing returns, someone should step in to figure out what can be done about New York’s construction costs that make them exponentially higher than those in similar cities around the world. But for now, this current plan needs to be approved. The alternative is not a pretty future at all.