Nobody ever likes to grovel. It’s that antiestablishment aversion to brown-nosers we all develop in middle school, but yet, there comes a time in every person’s career when, if one is not the ultimate, one must grovel. Thus, when the MTA sent out a press release on the MTA Board’s approval Wednesday of the revised and pared-down $29 billion five-year capital plan, agency head Tom Prendergast had to grovel.
“Thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the hard work of our dedicated MTA staff, this revised Capital Program will reduce costs and deliver projects more efficiently without cutting any projects or the benefits they will bring to our customers,” Prendergast said. You can almost hear him gritting his teeth via press release.
Cuomo played the part. Calling Wednesday a “great day,” Cuomo easily dismissed the months of childish fighting. “I challenged the MTA to revise its Capital Program in a way that reduced costs and delivered results more efficiently, without cutting any major projects or the benefits they will bring to commuters – and that is exactly what this new Program does,” he said. “Along with the State’s historic $8.3 billion investment and significant funding from the City to pay its fair share, this will mean a stronger, safer and more reliable MTA well into the future.”
Take that for what you will (and keep in mind that Cuomo’s funding solution likely just means more MTA debt). Now that the capital plan approval is on its way toward full approval, the reality is that the MTA isn’t exactly underfunded. It can tap into a massive amount of money to keep up current projects and implement future ones. Whether the agency spends well and gets bang for the buck is certainly in doubt, but the money, in some form or another, is there.
So with the capital plan approved — and one that relies more on city input — what’s changed? When the MTA first unveiled the 2015-2019 Capital Program during the summer of 2014, we delved into the request for funds for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and a variety of other measures, from signal work to Penn Station Access to the MetroCard replacement and beyond. The new plan shows how even a contribution of just a few billion dollars, as Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually ponied up, can skew things.
Notably and most importantly, the idea that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will see shovels enter the ground before the end of the decade has gone up in smoke. Instead of proposing $1.5 billion for the northern section of the long-awaiting subway line, the MTA has pared down its request to slightly over $500 million, and nearly all of this money is expected to come from federal sources. Here’s MTA-speak on the project:
The proposed 2015-2019 Capital Program provides $535 million to commence SAS Phase 2. This is a reduction of $1.0 billion compared to the previous 2015-2019 capital plan proposal that was submitted in September 2014, reflecting funding availability and the ability to implement scope within the plan period. Included are environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation. The balance of the work necessary for operation will be funded in future capital programs.
In plain English, this means that the MTA no longer expects to start the actual construction work on Harlem-bound part of the Second Ave. Subway until the 2020-2024 capital plan comes due. Previously, the MTA had expected some contracts for tunneling to be issued by 2019, but in the capital plan and subsequent comments on Wednesday, officials indicated that this was no longer a realistic timeline, considering the MTA’s ability to undertake the work and available funding. For what it’s worth, the billion-dollar reduction for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is the single biggest line-item cut in the new capital plan.
Now, this move doesn’t mean that the Second Ave. Subway extension to 125th St. and Lexington Ave. is dead. In fact, it commits the MTA to spend half a billion dollars on this vital part of the line. Rather, it means New Yorkers will have to wait longer for those stations at 106th, 116th and 125th, and, as time leads to more dollars spent, it’s likely to cost more as well. This is a symptom of the phased approach indicative of the funding constraints placed upon the MTA. It’s also a result of the ballooning East Side Access costs as the MTA needs to secure the dollars to finish that project. So we’ll wait until the mid-to-late 2020s instead. What a crazy thought.
Meanwhile, the new capital plan has more projects worth considering over the next few days. As a laundry list, the MTA, under pressure for some reason from de Blasio, will spend a whopping $5 million on the initial studies for a Utica Ave. extension (something I’ll revisit shortly) and will spend the same amount on studying converting Staten Island’s North Shore rail right-of-way to a bus rapid transit route. Investments in the new fare payment system have jumped from $250 million to $419 million, an indication that the MTA actually wants to see this project through, and the agency has yet again vowed to deliver countdown clocks throughout the subways by 2020 as well.
The agency has also signed up for a few more long-awaited subway-related projects. After years of requests, the agency will finally offer a connection between Livonia Ave. on the L and Junius St. on the 3 for a cost of $30 million, and the 42nd St. shuttle may see a big overhaul. (Look for more on that project soon too.) The MTA will also spend $740 million — up from $561 million — on ADA-related projects, including new entrances for the L train at Avenue A.
So that’s a lot to digest, and it barely scratches the surface. You can read through the revised booklet if you wish; the MTA has published it as a pdf. I’m not thrilled about the elongation of the Second Ave. Subway timeline, and I feel it’s indicative of the way the MTA operates (or doesn’t) these days. That’s the cost though of a 10 percent reduction in budget. If that’s the “bloat” Cuomo referred to when he bashed the initial capital plan, I don’t have high hopes for subway expansion until a more transit-friendly governor takes over in Albany. Either way, though, $29 billion is nothing to scoff at.