It took the reality of a delay for New York City’s politicians to wake up to the reality of the phased approach to the Second Ave. Subway. Without forceful political oversight or sufficient funding streams, the MTA’s original promises of constructing multiple phases at once fell by the wayside, and although Phase 1 may wrap by the end of 2016, the agency didn’t expect to begin construction on Phase 2 until 2019. When, thanks to a delay in resolving capital funding obligations, that date slipped to 2020, our elected officials finally noticed.
Pick a politician with a hand in the pie, and they had a complaint. In turn, the MTA promised to do what it could do speed up the planning process so that they could stick some shovels in the ground before 2020. Yet, behind the scenes, action continued, and on Thursday, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast met with a delegation of New York City representatives in what amounted to a rightful airing of grievances. The politicians want to see this project realized, and the MTA doesn’t want to bite the fiscal hands that feed it.
Thus, a statement from Prendergast, released on Thursday evening:
“Today I met with federal, state and city elected officials to discuss ways to advance and accelerate bringing the Second Avenue Subway to 125th Street. This is a prime goal for the MTA, for the state of New York and for the hundreds of thousands of people who will benefit from its construction. The MTA is fully committed to beginning work on the East Harlem extension even before the first segment to the Upper East Side opens by the end of next year.
“The MTA is committed to find every possible way to accelerate this project. We will employ alternative procurement methods to speed the planning, design, environmental review, property acquisition, utility relocation and construction preparation in our proposed 2015-19 Capital Program. Representative Charles Rangel, dean of the Congressional delegation, has offered to work with the delegation to explore ways to accelerate the project’s environmental review and assure the maximum federal funding possible, and we welcome their assistance.
“If these efforts to speed up the project timetable are successful, the MTA will amend our Capital Program and seek additional funds to begin heavy construction sooner. We appreciate the attention and commitment from our elected officials, and we share the goal of bringing the Second Avenue Subway to East Harlem as quickly as possible.”
This is what happens when six Assembly members, four State Senators, three City Council members, the Manhattan Borough President, the Public Advocate and a member of Congress gather in a room together. It’s not quite a promise to build the line faster; rather, it’s a promise to amend the capital plan if the opportunity arises for the MTA to start work sooner. But it also raises a series of questions.
For instance, why didn’t the MTA budget to start Phase 2 planning and design work well in advance of the completion of Phase 1? If Prendergast feels “alternative procurement methods” can speed up the initial stages of work, why wouldn’t they be implemented as a matter of standard policy? How much will all of this cost? And what can we do to keep those costs under $5.5-$6 billion?
Politicians should continue to focus on this issue, and the MTA should be able to figure out a way to start construction within four years from today. Hopefully, too, this can serve as a wake-up call for future projects of this magnitude (whether future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or otherwise). If politicians — those with access to dollars — stay involved, the MTA responds. It’s a lesson well worth learning.