When the MTA first published its 2015-2019 Capital Program toward the end of last year, it seemed that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway would soon see the light of day. Without pinpointing the total funding need for the stretch of the line that will run from 96th St. and 2nd Ave. to 125th St. and Lexington, the MTA had proposed a $1.5 billion line item that included project management and design, real estate acquisition and initial tunneling. The best laid plans would have seen initial tunneling being in 2019 with the remainder of Phase 2 funded in the 2020-2024 capital plan.
And then nothing happened. Governor Andrew Cuomo, the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA in New York State, didn’t make an effort to ensure the capital plan would be funded until mid-summer, and even then, he used the MTA to wage a petty political battle against the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio. By the time the two leaders set aside their childish fighting, nearly a year had elapsed between the MTA’s initial proposal and ultimate approval of the capital plan. For the MTA, this year meant uncertainty over funding and an inability to move forward on projects for which dollars were not guaranteed. Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was one of those casualties.
When the MTA unveiled its revised 2015-2019 Capital Program last week, funding for the Second Ave. Subway had taken a big hit. Instead of a $1.5 billion request, the agency now included just over $530 million — still a lofty sum and one that would cover the full costs for Phase 2 were we in, say, Paris or Madrid — but the $1 billion cut was the single biggest reduction in the revised plan. The $535 million would fund “environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation.” The MTA still plans to build Phase 2, but after a 13-month delay in capital funding approval, they claim to no longer have the time or resources available to spend $1.5 billion on the project before the end of 2019. With fewer dollars available, the MTA could make the decision to ask for more in four years.
And then everything hit the fan. Fallout was loud and angry with politicians accusing the agency of further delaying a massively delayed project, and the optics of withholding money for the Harlem-based sections after building the route through the Upper East Side looked even worse. If you take the MTA at its word, the agency still plans to build Phase 2 when it can, but the when looks a little more distant today than it did a year ago. Plus, New Yorkers aren’t keen on trusting the MTA. Can you blame them?
On Tuesday, local politicians struck back, and they were loud. Urging the MTA to just build the damn thing already, they condemned the agency for cutting the budget now. This was positive activism from politicians who were turning to a familiar whipping boy. In a letter to the MTA, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel expressed their displeasure with the situation. “We understand that the MTA will be moving forward with preliminary engineering and design, but it is disappointing to know that this project is once again being short-changed,” they wrote. “As you know, the long history of the Second Avenue Subway has involved repeated incidents of funding allocated and withdrawn, plans made and cancelled, ground-breakings celebrated and construction halted. We hope that this substantial funding cut does not signal the MTA’s lack of commitment to building phase 2 of the project.”
The two members of Congress posed a series of questions that need to be asked. They questioned the timetable for Phase 2 — something that is currently a real mystery. Noting that the MTA hasn’t yet requested federal dollars, a move that would commit the agency to build all of Phase 2 or refund a billion dollars to the feds, they asked when the agency plans to apply for New Starts money and enter into a full funding agreement. And importantly, they asked about the total expected cost, another mystery.
Yet, I couldn’t help but think that it was long overdue and years too late. Politicians tasked with oversight duties should have been asking these questions years ago to ensure that Phase 2 started once (or even before, as the Final Environmental Impact Statement contemplated) Phase 1 was completed. These questions need to be answered, but based on the MTA’s speed and competence (or potentially lack thereof), the MTA cannot start Phase 2 work much before 2020. As MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast said in a statement in response to Tuesday’s happenings, “[The $535 million] reflects the work we can realistically accomplish in the next four years given the regulatory and engineering constraints on heavy construction in a densely populated section of Manhattan.”
Meanwhile, the city too put some pressure on the MTA, and this too seemed oddly timed. Just last week, Polly Trottenberg, who is, thanks to Albany inaction on other potential appointees, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s only true representative on the MTA Board, praised the MTA’s capital plan with nary a peep about funding for the Second Ave. Subway. Yesterday, de Blasio’s words seemed to indicate that this cut was unexpected. “I do think it came as a surprise to many people that there was a change in the funding,” he said, “and I think that has to be reconsidered to make sure that everything is being done to move phase two as quickly as it can be done.”
The mayor, as you may recall, recently promised to contribute over $2.5 billion to the MTA’s capital program. Apparently, he wasn’t concerned enough with the details to follow up on how the city’s money will be spent and whether the MTA should be focusing on certain priorities. It is another move that shows the mayor’s lack of attention to transit matters, and it gave Cuomo, via Prendergast, the opportunity to ding de Blasio. In his statement, Prendergast highlighted how Trottenberg a week ago had called the new capital program a “very terrific capital plan.” What a mess.
At this controversy continues to boil, I hope New York City’s political representatives can learn a thing or two. First, paying attention to what the MTA is doing before it gets too late to do anything to change it is important. Imagine if Maloney and Rangel used their influence years ago to find out why Phase 2 planning hadn’t yet begun. Imagine if politicians were willing to hold the MTA’s feet to the fire on the outrageous costs associated with these capital projects. Imagine if de Blasio were to pay attention to transit spending priorities before they become news and not after. Imagine if the MTA were engaged in an aggressive effort to build out the Second Ave. Subway as fast as possible rather than as slow as possible.
The MTA knows it’s facing an uproar. As Prendergast said, “We have committed that if we can speed up the schedule to begin tunneling the East Harlem phase sooner, we will pursue a Capital Program amendment to do so. Governor Cuomo has made clear that he would like us to accelerate work on the Second Avenue Subway, and we are actively looking for ways to deliver the project faster.”
It is also not too late to right this wrong, but it will take considerable political effort and a lot of money. Phase 2 may now not finish until 2025 or beyond, and Phase 3 — the southern part — was originally supposed to take another nine years to complete. Maloney and Rangel should question that work as well. How much longer can we wait?