After months of anticipation and behind-the-scenes wrangling over spending priorities, the MTA on Monday unveiled a massive $51 billion five-year capital program that largely codifies Andy Byford’s Fast Forward program by bolstering investment in signal modernization and aggressive spending on ADA accessibility initiatives. The overview of the plan released Monday — a PowerPoint presentation rather than the detailed plan itself — also commits the MTA to complete Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway but at a cost of over $6 billion, making this 1.5-mile, three-stop expansion project the most expensive subway in the world.
Although the full plan with itemized spending details has yet to see the light of day, the MTA Board is expected to vote on the actual Capital Plan next week before it heads to the state’s Capital Program Review Board for consideration. With a proposed spend far in excess of the MTA’s previous five-year capital plans, its approval is no sure thing, but the scope is just what the MTA needs to embark on a path toward modernization.
The element of the capital plan most likely to jump out at the public is, of course, the price tag, and the MTA isn’t messing around this time. The agency has been challenged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to produce a transformational proposal, and the agency’s first draft of its 2020-2024 Capital Plan is the largest in history, featuring a 70% increase over the 2015-2019 Capital Plan. Whether the MTA can actually spend this much — or at least commit to spending this much, as Janno Lieber, the agency’s Chief Development Officer, insisted they could in remarks to reporters on Monday — over five years is an open question, and the issue of cost containment hovers over the MTA’s spending plans, as it has for the past decade.
Still, calling the plan “historic and transformational…for our customers,” MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye extolled its praise in comments on Monday. “The next five-year plan,” he said, “will include unprecedented levels of investment equitably distributed against the MTA’s subways, buses, commuter railroads and bridges and tunnels. The result is a plan that will build on the approach and institutionalize the successes of the Subway Action Plan across the MTA and finally modernize and transforms our subways, buses and commuter rails into a 21st century efficient, accessible and reliable system for our customers.”
Signals, ADA upgrades, SAS Phase 2 headline the plan
So who gets what in this long-withheld capital plan? Let’s break down what we know so far:
As you can see, the overwhelming bulk of the spending is focused around New York City Transit and, in particular, investments in the subway. Considering that a large share of the capital funding is going to be generated via the congestion pricing revenue, this sounds right to me.
As we drill down on the spending priorities, we see that these investments aren’t what are traditionally considered to be “sexy” from a political perspective. The opportunities for ribbon-cuttings and New Year’s Eve galas are few and far between, but the projects are designed to maximize the capacity of existing infrastructure to provide more frequent and reliable service to more people. To that end, the MTA wants to spend $7.1 billion on signal modernization for six new line segments as follows, largely building on existing installations:
- Queens Boulevard (E/F): Union Turnpike to 179th St.
- Astoria (N/W): Ditmars Boulevard to 57th St.
- 63rd St. Tunnel (F): 21st to 57th St. – 6th Ave.
- Fulton (A/C): Jay St. to Euclid Ave.
- Crosstown (G): Court Square to Hoyt/Schermerhorn Sts.
- Lexington Ave. (4/5/6): 149th St.-Grand Concourse to Nevins St.
Notably, MTA officials would not promise that all six sections would be completed within five years. Rather, the MTA committed to starting the work during the next five-year capital plan. When this first phase of the CBTC installation is complete, MTA officials noted that 50% of passengers would enjoy the benefits when the work is done. Technical details, including maintenance costs of maintaining two signal systems until the entire subway network is CBTC-ready, remain hazy.
Along with signal modernization comes rolling stock investment, and to that end, the agency will spend $6.1 billion on 1900 new subway cars — which equals approximately $3.2 million per car. I’ve asked the agency to clarify how many of these cars will include open gangway designs and am awaiting a reply. Considering how much of the capital plan is focused around increasing capacity without expanding the system, the 8-10 percent capacity gains due to open gangways should be standard in all NYC subway cars going forward, but the agency seems hesitant to commit to open gangways until the R211 open-gangway pilot is completed.
The MTA also plans to invest $5.2 billion in accessibility improvements, and the dollars cover full ADA access for 70 additional stations. Station improvements account for $4.1 billion, and $300 million of that will go toward fare evasion initiatives, Lieber and Foye noted. It’s not clear if that line-item includes re-designed fare control areas that eliminate emergency exits, a major pain point for unpaid entrances to the subway system. Track rebuilds account for $2.6 billion, and the remaining NYC Transit subway dollars will be funneled into the Second Ave. Subway. (I’ll have a separate post on that soon.)
Buses account for $3.5 billion more, and that includes the purchase of 2200 new buses (including 500 electric buses) and a fleet expansion of over 175 buses. These bus upgrades are a key part of the congestion pricing equation as the MTA needs to be able to offer more transit service from the get-go to account for the mode shift from personal automobiles to transit that congestion pricing should encourage.
The combined $10.4 billion for the area’s two commuter rails includes funding for rolling stock, signals upgrades, station improvements, and Penn Station Access, the four-stop Metro-North expansion in the Bronx that brings New Haven Line Metro-North service into Penn Station.
Congestion pricing a key source of funding while political battles loom
And what of the funding? Here’s a snapshot of the MTA’s expectations:
As you can see, nearly half of the funding comes from bonding out new revenues, including from congestion pricing and the mansion tax. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that the other half is political. Will the feds pony up $7.8 billion, especially if Trump wins a second term? Will the city contribute another $3 billion to what is a state agency? Will New Starts money be available for the Second Ave. Subway?
It seems likely that most, if not all, of this money will materialize. Most notable is the 50-50 funding split between the city and state and the overall reduction in state contributions from $7 billion to $3 billion. “It is imperative that the subways run on time,” Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “We are reviewing the plan to ensure that it helps get New Yorkers moving and that taxpayer dollars are used responsibly. We will have more to say soon.”
MTA officials said they were going to brief the city on Monday, and it’s not clear how that briefing unfolded. But during conversations with reporters on Monday morning, agency officials clearly telegraphed the expectation that city funds will help bolster the ADA spending. It’s a politically astute approach at a time when the mayor has been absent on the campaign trail pushing his doomed attempt at running for the White House as it essentially pushes the city into a corner: Fork over the $3 billion or risk the bad publicity of denying much-needed ADA accessibility investments.
In terms of the feds, the President’s extremely random tweet about the Second Ave. Subway indicates either that some cable TV news morning show was talking about the Second Ave. Subway or that federal dollars will continue to flow to the MTA, albeit perhaps slower than the used to. Still, the state legislature has a say, the price tag is a steep one. It’s not guaranteed that the $51.472 billion will all be there for the taking.
Reactions: Fast Forward vindicated; advocates call for more transparency
As the transit community digested this overview Monday, reactions poured in from all quarters. At the outset, many of the good governance groups fighting for better transit noted that the document the MTA shared on Monday (which is available here as a PDF) is an overview and not the capital plan. As I mentioned, we do not have a full breakdown of planned projects or project costs. We don’t know which stations are targeted for rehabilitation or which projects are holdovers from previous capital plans. The MTA also did not release a refreshed 20-year needs assessment which often informs the capital plan. (The last 20-year needs assessment was released in 2013, a year earlier in the cycle.)
Reinvent Albany highlighted the lack of details, a comment echoed by other advoates:
Today, the MTA released an 11-page slideshow partially summarizing the details in its 2020-2024 capital plan. To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft plan at its September 25th Board meeting, which is in seven business days. Reinvent Albany focuses on MTA governance and transparency. From that perspective, the MTA’s release of a slideshow that does not differentiate between core versus expansion projects, lumps together expansion costs and omits large capital projects is troublesome and again raises questions about MTA’s commitment to public transparency.
I agree with the need to see the full plan, but we can see a brighter future for the city and its subway systems. I have a few thoughts as well on what this plan means for the future of the subway and Andy Byford’s continued stay in New York City. Already on Monday morning, Dana Rubinstein wrote of a detente between Cuomo and Byford, and this capital plan is a vindication of Fast Forward. It includes all of the signal modernization projects Byford requested and more ADA upgrades that he had initially planned. While MTA officials haven’t used Fast Forward by name, that its priorities are to be funded is a sign that Cuomo has realized he and Byford are on the same team and that, as I wrote last week, Byford’s successes are Cuomo’s successes.
During comments this morning, Byford said that the capital plan “delivered beyond my wildest expectations” and that he was “ecstatically happy” that the priorities the city needs are funded. New Yorkers should be ecstatically happy too. I’ll have more on the dollars and cost containment (or lack thereof) later, but for now, this is a clear sign that the MTA is on a path toward modernization. It’s the investment the city and system need to become successful, and it shows that Cuomo has perhaps learned the right lessons from a year of picking fights, in the press or otherwise, with the people who can deliver him his greatest infrastructure success.
I’ll end then with the man who has the final say in all of this — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. The verbose chief executive let rip a lengthy statement on Monday, challenging everyone to toe the line and quickly:
“Last week I laid out my priorities for the MTA Capital Plan, including improving signal technology, increasing accessibility, addressing quality of life concerns, ensuring equity for LIRR and Metro-North Railroad, and upgrading bus service – and I will review the details of the plan to make sure it fulfills those priorities. The Senate Leader, Assembly Speaker and Mayor of New York City must approve the plan in order to move forward as they each have unilateral discretionary veto power.
For decades the MTA was mismanaged and underfunded – that is why in 2017 we invested $836 million for the Subway Action Plan and $8 billion in State capital funds and $2.6 billion in New York City Capital funds. The success of that plan is inarguable – it led to the recent 84% on-time performance rate, a six-year high – but its implementation was delayed, and that cannot be repeated with this new plan. We have secured $25 billion during this year’s legislative session that will go directly towards the MTA’s capital needs outlined in this plan, and I support an additional State investment of $3 billion, to be matched by the City, that will go toward making our subways more accessible. We have an historic opportunity to institutionalize the lessons learned, build on the progress made under the Subway Action Plan and make crucial upgrades so riders get the 21st century transit system they deserve.”
The full plan will be presented to the MTA Board next week. The Board will vote to approve. And then it’s out of the governor’s control and onto the state mechanisms. Will this $51 billion dream become a reality? We’ll find out in short order.