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Over the past few months, as city and state representatives to the MTA Board have squared off over the scope and omissions in Transit’s Enhanced Stations Initiative, the MTA’s adherence to the requirements in the Americans with Disabilities Act has come under the microscope. The agency agreed a few decades ago to make 100 Key Stations fully accessible by 2020, and the MTA is, it says, on pace to meet this goal. Disabilities advocates say that, despite the Key Stations, the MTA routinely flouts the requirements of the ADA by not investing in elevators when non-Key Stations undergo renovations. That the ESI stations aren’t being made accessible is a key sticking point, and now the feds, focusing on a 2013-2014 renovation of the 6 train’s Middletown Road stop, have joined a suit alleging MTA violations of the ADA.

The suit, one of many the MTA currently faces alleging similar violations, has been working its way through federal court for nearly two years. A June 2016 DNAInfo article profiled it when the plaintiffs first filed. The feds, in something of a surprise move this week, filed a complaint-in-intervention to join the suit.

Geoffrey Berman, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, condemned the MTA. “There is no justification for public entities to ignore the requirements of the ADA 28 years after its passage,” he said. “The subway system is a vital part of New York City’s transportation system, and when a subway station undergoes a complete renovation, MTA and NYCTA must comply with its obligations to make such stations accessible to the maximum extent feasible.”

The crux of the government’s complaint — available here as a pdf — involves the MTA’s request to the Federal Transit Administration for funding for the renovation. The agency spent $21 million but could not find a budget for elevators to make this elevated stop accessible. Prior to the renovation, the FTA had asked the MTA to defend its claim that it would be “technically infeasible” to include elevators, and the never MTA never provided such justification, the feds claim. Subsequently, the claim alleges, NYC DOT conceded that elevators could have been technical feasible had they been incorporated into early project designs. After a lengthy back-and-forth over funding, the FTA determined that the MTA had violated the ADA, and the MTA lost out on federal dollars for rehab. Now the feds are seeking an injunction mandating that the MTA install the necessary elevators at Middletown Road.

The MTA has said it will defend the suit on the merits, and disabilities advocates are thrilled that the feds are finally taking legal sides in this fight. A litigator with the Disabilities Rights Advocates noted that the feds’ involvement “sends a clear message to the MTA that they can’t continue to get away with business as usual.”

My semi-informed guess is that this is a test case for the feds and the MTA. Multiple other suits are percolating through the courts right now involving the MTA’s alleged violations of ADA requirements, but this one is a particularly strong one. It is focused on only one station and rests on a determination by a federal agency that the MTA actually violated Title II of the ADA. It’s as close to an open-and-shut case on the ADA as one may find, and if the MTA is intent on fighting it on its merits rather than settling, the feds are likely to win.

With a victory in their pockets, federal prosecutors would have stronger arguments for some of the tougher cases against the MTA, including potential suits targeting the Enhanced Station Initiatives. Transit Center’s Jon Orcutt, for one, recently told Politco New York that the MTA should probably be sued over the ESI, and this seemingly easy case puts that goal in reach. “They’re doing major work in stations and not doing anything on accessibility. They probably need to be sued directly on stations to bring that issue to a legal head,” Orcutt said.

Of course, this could still settle out, but it adds a new wrinkle to the MTA’s resistance to fulfilling the terms of the ADA on a system-wide basis, and it’s about time prosecutors forced the agency’s hand. The subway system should be on a path to full accessibility; it’s a moral imperative and a legal one too.

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Which genius came up with the idea of awarding this plan money?

With any luck, this week will be the last we hear of the MTA’s ill-conceived “Genius Competition.” The brain-child of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the Genius Competition arose in May of 2017 when the governor couldn’t ignore the drumbeat over declining subway reliability and decided to convene a panel hold a contest to fix every problem. It wasn’t well received within the MTA as the agency’s staff members who work hard to keep the subways running felt they were being ignored in favor of the glitz and glamour of a blue-ribbon panel, and the resentment has festered within the walls of 2 Broadway for months, another sign of the disconnect between Cuomo’s people and the MTA careerists.

The Genius Competition has taken up time and money, and a lot of the oxygen in the room, as Cuomo has tried to bill it as the thing that will prove people are thinking hard about how to fix the MTA. On Friday, the winners were revealed. The agency doled out around $2.5 million to eight ideas. Some of them — an ultra wideband wireless system for signal technology, for instance — the MTA had already been exploring. Others — a light-weight carbon fiber-based modular subway car designed by CRRC — should be part of the MTA’s ongoing improvement efforts. I’m not going to detail all eight of the winning ideas; you can read the press release or watch the videos detailing the winners. I’ve embedded the CRRC video below as it has some alluring future-tech rail car renderings.

But I want to talk about one in particular that won $330,000: Lawyer and transit enthusiast Craig Avedisian proposed, as the MTA put it, “changing passenger loading procedures and adding more cars to trains to increase capacity.” On its surface, that seems like a reasonable idea until you realize that all but a handful of G train stations aren’t long enough for longer cars. On closer examination, Avedisian is proposing an extremely customer unfriendly idea that would involve a third of his longer subway trains not platforming at every other station. And this idea won money from an MTA panel that includes the agency’s current chairman, president, managing director and chief development officer. If you’re asking if anyone is home, well, it’s a good question.

Avedisian wrote a 20-page application in support of his idea. Drawing the wrong sort of inspiration from London, Avedisian proposes adding 3-4 cars to every subway train so that more passengers can fit on one train, but only some cars will open their doors at a station. He has designed an A-B system where cars 1-10 will open their doors at A stations and cars 5-14 will open their doors at B stations. He claims this will increase capacity by up to 65% at a cost of $12 billion, far less than subway expansion efforts. (This of course ignores that subway “expansion,” by definition, reaches new areas underserved by transit, but Avedisian’s proposal doesn’t seem to reach this level of consideration.) The conclusion of his argument is “How can the MTA not do this for New York?”

There are of course numerous reasons why the comparisons to London fall flat and why this idea should be a non-starter. For a rapid transit system, it is an idea very hostile to riders who would need to know a lot of details about their rides that most people shouldn’t be expected to know, and without articulated trains, it can lead to a situation where riders are “trapped” when they end up in cars that don’t platform at their destination. In practice, as we can see with Amtrak and other commuter rail services, including those serving London, it increases dwell times to levels unsustainable for a rapid transit network. On a technical level, the plan ignores the costs associated with procuring enough cars for every train to be 40 percent longer or with adjusting the length of MTA signal blocks to accommodate longer trains. It’s an excuse for avoiding addressing the real capacity increase: a modern signal system.

Ultimately, Avedisian beat the MTA and its own game. He came up with an idea that shouldn’t be contemplated in a forward-thinking transit environment and bilked the MTA out of a few hundred grand. But the MTA seems to be taking this whole thing seriously. “People from around the world delivered groundbreaking solutions that truly represent a new wave of innovation for the MTA, and we are more excited than ever about the future of New York Subways,” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said of the entire slate of Genius Competition entries. And officially, the MTA is going to consider this proposal, though it sounds as though the G train will be the one and only subway line to get longer cars. The press release states:

The MTA will evaluate the system’s busiest subway lines, stations where platforms are long enough to accommodate longer trains, and fleet and yard availability, to further explore applications of Avedisian’s idea. Some subway lines are viable candidates for a pilot program due to ridership demand and their station layouts. A study of fleet and infrastructure availability will be needed for a future pilot program or future car procurement.

But why it chosen as a finalist by a panel that included the top MTA leadership officials? In comments to press, Avedisian drew further faulty comparisons. “I think it’s, in concept, no different than local/express, J/Z,” he said to The Daily News. Of course, it’s not the same as an express/local situation in which riders know that every car will platform. It’s a confusing excuse for a solution to problems that can be solved — and that seems to be a metaphor for the Genius Competition writ large.

After 10 months, the MTA is a few million dollars poorer and a real solution to the transit crisis remains a far-off spot on the horizon. The Genius Competition seemed like a distraction last year and ended as one this year. The good ideas, as told through hundreds of submissions, should be embraced without the pomp and circumstance of a contest; that is, after all, what a well-run agency would do to usher in its future. But at least Robert James, one of the “winners” for this ultra-broadband idea, can use $250,000 of MTA money to, as he told Dan Rivoli, build his home in Tampa, and isn’t that everyone’s dream?

Categories : MTA Absurdity
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Will a Trump-Schumer fight torpedo plans for the Gateway Tunnel?

In some alternate timeline — the one without cost overruns for transit projects and on-time delivery — New Jersey’s ARC tunnel would be opening this year. The plan to add Hudson River capacity for New Jersey Transit involved a deep-bore terminal dead-ending underneath Macy’s and was flawed from the start, but it faced solvable problems that could have been resolved. It was also funded and underway when former Garden State Governor Chris Christie pulled the plug. Although New Jersey transit advocates have convinced themselves that Christie saved the state from a mistake due to the design of ARC, in the intervening eight years, the state spent a lot of money that should have gone to transit on roads, and New Jersey Transit has withered on the vine.

As part of Christie’s ex ante rationale for canceling ARC, he challenged the region’s players to come up with a better plan, and Amtrak eventually settled on the Gateway Tunnel project, a massively costly project that would run from $20-$30 billion and involve new tunnels, new bridges and a new rail station in Manhattan. It would allow for real high-speed rail to pass through Manhattan but wouldn’t connect Penn Station and Grand Central, the Holy Grail of rationalizing New York’s regional rail problem. It was to be funded in part by New York and New Jersey and in part by the feds, but that’s when grudge politics stepped in.

The Washington Post broke the news on Friday: “According to four officials familiar with the discussions, Trump has taken a personal interest in making sure no federal dollars flow to a project that is considered critical to his hometown’s long-term economic prosperity.” That’s right: Despite earlier claims that he would hold up the feds’ end of the funding deal, President Donald Trump has decided he does not want to fund the Gateway Tunnel project.

The Post wasn’t clear on the whys and wherefores. Ted Budd, a North Carolina representative, claimed the issue was tax fairness. “North Carolina and the other 48 states should not have to foot the bill for this hall of fame earmark,” he said. But New York and New Jersey are two of the biggest net contributors to federal coffers, and even $10-$15 billion on Gateway spending wouldn’t begin to even out the northeast’s tax deficit vis-a-vis federal spending.

The Times had more and the motives seem personal:

Mr. Trump’s opposition to the project is in part the result of his belief that it is important to Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, according to one person with knowledge of the president’s thinking on the issue. Mr. Trump has told Republicans that it makes no sense to give Mr. Schumer something that he covets — funding for the tunnels — at a time that Mr. Schumer is routinely blocking Mr. Trump’s nominees and other parts of his agenda, the person said.

The move has angered members of Trump’s own party, as The Times subsequently detailed:

Just a few months ago, the idea once again appeared to have gained the support it needed in Washington and, once again, it looks as if one powerful official — in this case, the president — could put a stop to it. The latest and perhaps most ominous threat came late Friday night when it was revealed that President Trump had asked Republican leaders to withdraw federal funding for the project.

Mr. Trump has promised to spur “the biggest and boldest infrastructure investment in American history.” So his opposition to an established project that is widely considered a solution to one of the nation’s most critical infrastructure needs has confounded even veterans of his own party. Some fear that Mr. Trump is jeopardizing commerce along the Eastern Seaboard simply to spite Senator Charles E. Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York. “If the news reports are accurate that he wants to kill it or hold it because he’s mad at Chuck Schumer, that makes no sense,” said Representative Peter King, Republican of Long Island. “This is essential to the national economy as well as the regional economy.”

He said he would not vote for a funding bill that did not include some money for the rail-tunnel project, which is known as Gateway. “I support President Trump on a lot of issues, but on this one he’s wrong,” Mr. King said in an interview on Saturday.

Kathryn Wylde of the Parntership for New York City tried some odd reverse psychology that is bound to have little effect on Trump. “I have no doubt that regardless of what he says, he knows the importance of this project and he does not want it to fail on his watch,” she said, providing no evidence that the president is looking beyond personal grudges or, optimistically, horse-trading. Needless to say, the president doesn’t have a big fan base in the Big Apple and has always flown in and out of New York City. Amtrak Don he is not.

The reaction has been loud and generally in favor of Gateway. Bloomberg News delved into the economics of letting the current tunnels fail, a real reality within the next six to eight years. Gateway, the piece notes, would generate $2.16 in economic activity for every dollar spent, and not to build Gateway while risking a failure of the current tubes could be catastrophic for the country.

Another piece in Crains New York urged planners to go back to the drawing board to reduce the scope. Could a one-tube tunnel for less cost solve the problems? It seems unlikely as tunneling isn’t generally the most expensive part of these projects, and reducing the number of tubes doesn’t equate to a 50% reduction in the costly infrastructure needed for the new rail capacity.

What no one has talked about is cost control. Following the winter’s Times exposes on construction costs, Gateway is primed for an aggressive reform attempt. Were Trump operating in good faith, he would urge New York and New Jersey to tackle the reforms highlighted in the series on the New York region’s cost problems. The feds could make any grant subject to a cap and contingent on cost cutting. Based on standard international multipliers at play in New York City, the entire Gateway project would probably cost around $10 billion in even the most expensive European cities, but our version is going to carry a $20-$30 billion price tag depending upon scope. No one wants to challenge this 800 pound gorilla in the room, and Trump is operating on personal political grudges rather than a good-faith attempt at cost reform.

And so, in a way, we’re having the ARC Tunnel debate all over again. On Saturday, Josh Barro and I engaged in a back-and-forth on Twitter over this very issue. Barro argued that perhaps it’s not bad for the Gateway proponents to try to whittle down the price, and in one sense, he’s not wrong. Gateway shouldn’t be this expensive, and New York and New Jersey should be interested in cost reform so that the dollars they can get go further. But even if the states come back with a more sensible cost proposal, Trump still won’t fund the project; he wants to use this a cudgel to beat Schumer, and everyone in the region, Republicans and Democrats alike, will lose out.

As Chris Christie doesn’t deserve praise for canceling the ARC project for the wrong reasons before later stumbling into a flaw in the chosen route as an excuse, Trump shouldn’t get “credit” for bringing attention to Gateway’s costs. The decision to withhold funds for no good reason is the wrong one; the move to ignore extremely high costs is also the wrong one. But one does not excuse the other. The region needs Gateway, and to get there will require some support from Washington, DC. For now, though, we’ll keep holding our collective breaths over the battle for dollars.

Categories : Gateway Tunnel
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A new RPA report, released as part of the group’s fourth Regional Plan, delves into NYC’s high construction costs.

It’s high times for close-ups on the MTA’s out-of-control capital spending, and hot on the heels of The Times’ deep dive into the MTA’s cost problems comes a long awaited Regional Plan Association report on the very same topic. The title is staid — Building Rail Transit Projects Better for Less — and doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, but the conclusions are forceful. “The entire process of designing, bidding, and building megaprojects needs to be rethought and reformed top-down and bottom-up,” the RPA says, not mincing words.

In a certain sense, the RPA’s report takes a modest approach to cost reform goals. The RPA believes the MTA could save between 25-33% by implementing its recommendations. While those savings would bring costs more into line with the most expensive international transit projects, the MTA would still be a leader in the cost realm if, for instance, East Side Access came in at $7 billion instead of $10 or Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway checked in at $3 billion instead of $4.5. But the extra billions in essentially free money would be put to good use.

The full report is available as an 80-page PDF and, while not perfect, is worth the read. It delves into three case studies focusing on the Second Ave. Subway, the 7 line extension (the best of three overly expensive projects) and East Side Access before analyzing New York City in the context of its international peers. When stacked up against London (Crossrail and the Northern Line extension), Los Angeles, Paris and Madrid (along with a few other cities thrown in for good measure), our models fall apart. New York doesn’t adopt best practices when it comes to capital construction and thus cannot keep pace with technological innovations that would improve service reliability and modernize an old system as many international peer systems of a similar age have. It’s an ugly and familiar story all around.

A comprehensive set of recommendations

As with other recent pieces on the topic, the RPA is careful to spread the blame. Much to the frustration of those outside the transit realm, there is no silver bullet. “The extraordinarily high costs associated with building transit projects in New York are due to many factors, at every stage, from decisions made by political leaders at the inception of the projects to the final stages of lengthy planning, design, and construction processes. Long tolerated as an accepted natural consequence of New York’s size and dominance, these costs threaten to strangle the region’s future economic growth. Other global cities have outpaced New York in building modern infrastructure and attracting new business and residents as New York struggles to simply keep up with basic maintenance.”

To fix the problem, the RPA sets forth 22 recommendations. These include a streamlined environmental review process that could cut years off the planning process. Projects in New York can take up to seven years to get off the ground due to the environmental review requirements while similar work in Europe can begin in 18-24 months. The RPA also recommends accurate project budgets and timelines to avoid funding and procurement problems down the line; more of a reliance on off-the-shelf design and construction elements to avoid costs of customization and change orders; industry-standard project management and procurement practices; streamlined post-project review; the ever-popular work-rule reform; a ten-year capital funding pipeline to better align with construction timelines; and a reform of land-use and zoning practices so that the city and state coordinate on value capture. As a break from the familiar laundry list of reforms, the RPA also points to a shortage of skilled and qualified laborers for the work on the MTA’s slate and urges the creation of job-training centers as well.

Inside the Second Ave. Subway case study

While the RPA by and large seems to reinforce what many in the know have urged the MTA to do for years, the case studies, particularly with regards to the Second Ave. Subway, lay bare the the MTA’s problems. You can read Aaron Gordon’s analysis on the impact of cutting the third track at 72nd St., and take, for instance, the cost of phasing out the entire line:

SAS’s first phase offers many lessons for phase two, starting with how best to manage the overlap of a project with multiple phases. To date, the MTA has not completed engineering and design for phase two, which is only just getting started. This has made it impossible for the agency to coordinate the winding down of phase one with the ramping up of construction for phase two, which would have allowed the experienced crews working on phase one to move directly onto the next segment. Instead, the MTA ended major construction in January 2017 and left the neighborhood, with plans to return in roughly three years. The loss of experienced labor, current staging docks, and remote office spaces means the MTA will have to start the process all over again — adding to the time and costs of phase two as well as the disgruntlement of the neighborhood. And without institutionalizing the lessons learned from phase one, the MTA risks the loss of institutional knowledge that agency staff and project managers have developed on the job over the course of building SAS.

The report includes a one-page featurette on the decision to forego development at the six lots along 2nd Ave. that are home to ventilation plants and station entrances. The MTA lost out on approximately $100-$125 million had the city and state coordinated on rezoning and air rights transfers. As costs go, the Second Ave. Subway was subject to thousands of change orders, and the costs add up:

According to the GCA, the SAS had thousands of change orders, with 96th Street issuing 200 orders during the acceleration phase alone (a claim the MTA disputes). Change orders modified more than 30% of the contract plans. An extreme example occurred with the electrical contractor at 96th Street having over 70% of its bid scope of work modified by change orders, which were issued serially as items were discovered. “This required the general contractor to perform other work out of sequence,” noted GCA, “and in many instances, remove and replace (at its expense) work that had already been completed and installed.”

The stories and dollars just keep adding up. Take, for instance, the station costs:

The high costs of the 96th Street station can be partly explained by the inclusion of 65,000 square feet for the MTA workforce in underground facilities and office space, requiring expensive blasting. The station has hundreds of non-public-access employee spaces. This equates to three to four times as many employee spaces as any other station along the line. The MTA’s justification was that 96th is a terminus, which is only temporary because the line will actually terminate at 125th Street when phase two is completed. Instead of spending the extra millions of dollars to build these temporary facilities, the MTA should have explored the cost-effectiveness of providing employee spaces at the surface by renting commercial space.26 There are also redundant employee facilities at 86th Street and 72nd Street.

Of course, another reason SAS’s stations were extraordinarily expensive lies with the materials. The archway entrances, for example, are built of granite that is six to eight inches thick. As one MTA project manager noted, part of the problem is nothing is off the shelf, with all of the granite being custom-produced.27 Granite, by nature, is nonstandard; each piece is unique due to its geologic formation. Under Buy America procurement rules, the MTA was required to buy American materials. Yet the United States has only a few suppliers that could provide granite of this size, custom-cut to curve at around eight inches thick to support the weight of the archways. This was a deliberate material design decision that almost surely should not be repeated in the future if the MTA hopes to contain costs.

The examples go on and on and on, and by the end of the case studies, one may think that the Second Ave. Subway was designed with no regard to cost at all. The construction of Phase 1 was, from start to finish, a textbook example of how not to build a subway line at a reasonable cost and within a reasonable timeline, and the MTA has shown no indication that things will be different for Phase 2.

Criticism of the RPA’s report

For the strength of its examples, though, the RPA report has not been immune from criticism, and Alon Levy, the resident expert on transit construction costs, has weighed in with a thoughtful critique of the report that is also worth the read. Levy highlights mistakes in the details of the RPA’s cost comparisons that are hard to ignore and rightly charges the organization with an Anglo bias in that it “overvalue[s] other English-speaking countries, even when their construction costs are the highest in the world outside the US.”

Levy doesn’t hold back in his conclusion, urging the creators of reports such as these to delve deeper and draw out the necessary comparisons. He writes:

One of the things I learned working with TransitMatters is that some outside stakeholders, I haven’t been told who, react poorly to non-American comparison cases, especially non-English-speaking ones. Ignorant of the world beyond their borders, they make up excuses for why knowledge that they don’t have is less valuable. Even within the group I once had to push back against the cycle of failure when someone suggested a nifty-looking but bad idea borrowed from a low-transit-use American city. The group’s internal structure is such that it’s easy for bad ideas to get rejected, but this isn’t true of outside stakeholders, and from my conversation with Tom Wright about Gateway I believe the RPA feels much more beholden to the same stakeholders.

The cycle of failure that the RPA participates in is not the RPA’s fault, or at least not entirely. The entire United States in general and New York in particular is resistant to outside ideas. The political system in New York as well as the big nonprofits forms an ecosystem of Americans who only talk to other Americans, or to the occasional Canadian or Brit, and let bad ideas germinate while never even hearing of what best industry practices are. In this respect the RPA isn’t any worse than the average monolingual American exceptionalist, but neither is it any better.

The RPA of course knows its audience and knows how far recommendations can go within the MTA. Scott Rechler, the chair of the RPA, is a bright voice on the MTA Board, and he knows that institutional resistance to reform runs deeper. So perhaps in that sense, the report is written for its audience and goes as far as this audience is willing to go. That may be part of the problem. It is another salvo in the MTA’s war on costs, one I would read with Levy’s grain of salt but not dismiss out of hand. The question is: Who’s listening and when and how will change arrive? The city cannot afford to spend more while getting less and less each year.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The first part of the R211 contract will feature only 20 open gangway cars, but the design will arrive in New YOrk City soon. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

A few weeks ago, I previewed the MTA’s next-generation rolling stock. The R211s will feature wider doors and, at some point, open gangways, a design standard throughout the world. As I mentioned in December, though the MTA deserves praise for bringing an open-end car design to New York City, by delaying the arrival of the technology for so many years, the MTA sacrificed an 8-10 percent increase in capacity for decades. Cars that were purchased over the past ten years could have featured open gangways but did not, and these cars won’t be retired for another 40-50 years. The embrace of open gangways with the R211 order is a bittersweet moment to say the least, and one that still may not arrive.

Last week, the MTA Board approved a massive purchase for new rolling stock. The MTA is going to spend over $1.4 billion on 535 new cars, 20 of which will feature the open gangway design. Kawaski will fulfill this contract, and the first part will feature rolling stock that costs $2.7 million per car, a number far out of line with international standards. As an example, London paid over $1 million less per car for its recent purchase of open-ended S7 and S8 cars for the the Metropolitan, District, Hammersmith & City, and Circle lines.

The MTA’s new contract becomes somewhat more palatable if the future options are exercised. Kawasaki and the MTA agreed to an extension of $1.3 billion for 640 open gangway cars and an additional $913 million for 437 cars — or options for around $2 million per car with some adjustments for inflation. The contract, the MTA says, is “fair and reasonable,” and delivery of the open gangway prototypes is expected within 30 months, a very aggressive timeline for a new rolling stock contract.

“It is imperative that we provide a first-in-class subway car that can live up to the rigor and expectations of New Yorkers,” MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota said in a statement. “As part of our commitment to modernize the subway system, we have expanded and accelerated this contract to provide more reliable, more comfortable train cars that are easier to board and exit and provide more useful real-time information to riders.”

With or without open gangways, the new cars will feature 58-inch wide door widths that are eight inches wider than current cars. This new width should permit faster boardings, but the trains still feature enclosed doors so window space will be reduced. All R211s will be CBTC-compatible so at some point in the next few decades, the MTA will be able to provide more service. When that reality will emerge remains to be seen, but for now, new cars with open gangways are on the way. That is very much good news for New York City even if it is eight or ten years too late.

Categories : Rolling Stock
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One of the strange twists and turns of the ongoing saga over Governor Andrew Cuomo’s responsibility for the current collapse of NYC’s subway system involved a breakfast and some finger pointing at Con Edison this past summer. While I was on vacation (and subsequently recovering from a broken bone I sustained while on that vacation), this story of odd finger-pointing unfolded to a certain denouement that had Con Edison paying for some costs regarding power delivery to the MTA. It seemed strange at the time and raised eyebrows within the New York political landscape, and after a report this weekend in The Daily News, it seems that the MTA may have fudged some numbers to allow the governor to blame, and get money from, Con Edison for unrelated (or at best, quasi-related) subway performance issues.

The story goes a little something like: In July, Cuomo delivered remarks at a breakfast hosted by the Association for a Better New York in which he laid the blame for MTA performance issues on the shoulders of Con Ed. “Over the last 12 months, 32,000 delays because of power related issues,” he said of the subways, “and they can either be a power surge or power shortage, but 32,000 delays. The MTA doesn’t control the power, Con Edison does. Con Edison has a duty to safely, prudently and effectively provide electricity that powers the subway system. Con Ed is a regulated utility under the state’s Public Service Commission. April 21 after the last outage I ordered an investigation of the Con Ed infrastructure after a particularly devastating failure. The investigation goes on but PSC has already found that Con Ed must make immediate and significant improvements in this system because the reliability depends on it.”

In mid-November, Politico New York reported that Con Ed would be taking on the costs of electrical repair work required by the MTA. Marie French and Dana Rubinstein termed the whole thing an “unusual financial arrangement” that would eventually shift costs to Con Ed’s NYC and Westchester customers anyway, and no one could put a finger on why this arrangement was necessary or if it even made sense. Now it seems it does not make sense, at least not without some loose accounting. Dan Rivoli broke the news this weekend:

Internal emails obtained by the Daily News show an MTA honcho pushing staff to come up with a higher number of subway delays blamed on power issues, before Gov. Cuomo made a public show of citing problems with Con Edison as the single biggest source of disruption for riders. As the Summer of Hell was in full swing, NYC Transit brass found a creative way to make power-tied delays appear more common. They expanded the types of incidents that could be defined as power-related, including circuit failures, and emergencies — like a person on the track — where the power is intentionally cut off.

The broader definition detailed in emails from July 25 to Aug. 9 allowed the MTA to quadruple the tally of power-related delays, to 32,000 from 8,000…The real number of power delays, according to senior subways performance analyst Kyle Kirschling, was about 8,000. NYC Transit chief of staff Naomi Renek wrote an email to staff members at 6:03 a.m. on July 25, saying that she was “looking for a higher delay number for power.”

Kirschling initially appeared stumped. “I can’t think of a way to make the ConEd/External power figures higher,” he replied to Renek, NYC Transit Executive Vice President Tim Mulligan and other transit staffers. Kirschling, in a subsequent email, said Con Ed was at fault for just 3,422 of those delays.

So how did Con Ed’s responsibility increase ten-fold? As Rivoli details in his reporting, the MTA simply changed the definition of a power problem to those well beyond the scope of power delivery issues under Con Edison’s purview to bring the number up from 3400 to 32,000. He write of one particularly egregious exchange:

Cuomo’s deputy press secretary Maxwell Morgan checked in with Renek, emailing her and another governor’s aide, Maria Michalos. “Naomi, do we have the total real number of power-related delays over last 12 months? Higher than the 8k?”

Renek responded with an explanation. “The 8k is the real number of power-only incidents,” she wrote. “However, incidents coded as signal can also be power-related. We can safely say that track circuit incidents are power-related, although power is not the root cause.”

Soon, she and Morgan were hashing out how to spin the numbers to the public. “How would you massage that language?” Morgan wrote. “Could we say ‘power-related issues caused more than 32,000 delays?’ ” Renek replied that it was better to couch the numbers by saying power “caused or contributed to” the delays.

Hilariously enough, in initial comments to Rivoli, the governor’s team claimed Cuomo was only the messenger, and the MTA has vehemently defended its calculations, even claiming Con Edison is responsible in situations in which power is intentionally cut to the tracks by the agency to respond to a problem. “Are you gonna tell me power cut from the tracks is not a power-related problem?” MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said to Rivoli. (Don’t sleep either on Lhota, the MTA head, dismissing Kirschling, a six-year MTA vet, as a “bean-counter” in the Daily News piece. This has not gone over well with the rank-and-file at 2 Broadway as I’ve heard it.)

Under question later on Sunday, Cuomo repeatedly tried to shift blame to the MTA (which, for the record, he controls). “The MTA produced the numbers. The MTA says they’re accurate. I believe the MTA…I didn’t read the Daily News story. I was told about it briefly. I don’t know what the difference between power issues and power-related issues really are. You should talk to the MTA about that.”

So where does this leave everything? This is another story indicative of Cuomo’s attempts at blaming everyone else other than himself and his stewardship of the MTA for the MTA’s problems. It’s a tale of the governor’s people using downward pressure to force MTA employees to rewrite rules to make the governor look better while identifying a scapegoat dubiously responsible at best. It’s a story that demands an official investigation and again showcases how public trust in the MTA’s self-reported numbers should be essentially non-existent now. “It raises issues about accountability and it raises questions as to whether this is happening in other areas of subway performance,” John Kaehny of Reinvent Albany said to The Times on Sunday. “How far does this go?” How far, indeed.

Categories : MTA Politics
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The FIX NYC panel released its full report, today recommended a series of measures to reduce Manhattan congestion.

Update: The Fix NYC advisory panel released its full report on Friday morning. You can read it right here as a PDF. My questions below are still relevant, and I had some initial reactions via a thread on Twitter.

The Governor issued a statement on the panel’s report but hedged on the way forward:

“I have received the report from Fix NYC and will review it carefully. I thank the panel for their hard work and effort. I will discuss the alternatives with the legislature over the next several months. There is no doubt that we must finally address the undeniable, growing problem of traffic congestion in Manhattan’s central business district and present a real, feasible plan that will pass the legislature to raise money for MTA improvements, without raising rider fares.

A uniform pricing model for FHVs that discourages continuing presence in the central business district and incentivizes trucks to deliver on off peak hours is a necessary component. Tolls must be more fair. Trips to and from New Jersey can be less expensive than trips from New York City’s outer boroughs. Tolls vary widely, and they must be rationalized so costs are fair to all.

The report accurately points out that the objective is not to raise tolls entering the borough of Manhattan, but more specifically those trips adding to the congestion in a defined central business district. But, as a born and raised Queens boy, I have outer borough blood in my veins, and it is my priority that we keep costs down for hard working New Yorkers, and encourage use of mass transit. We must also find a way to reduce the costs for outer borough bridges in any plan ultimately passed.

I still wonder if this is a real plan he intends to champion or something he will use for cover to claim he tried to fix NYC’s traffic problems but could not overcome Albany resistance. My original post follows.

* * *

With Governor Cuomo’s Fix NYC task force set to release its report on Friday afternoon, Jim Dwyer and Winnie Hu of The Times have a first glimpse at the traffic pricing plan behind which Cuomo may line up to bring relief to New York streets and money for transit. Here’s what we know so far:

Driving a car into the busiest parts of Manhattan could cost $11.52 under a major proposal prepared for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo that would make New York the first city in the United States with a pay-to-drive plan…

Trucks would pay $25.34, and taxis and for-hire vehicles could see surcharges of $2 to $5 per ride. The pricing zone would cover Manhattan south of 60th Street. In a key change from past efforts, drivers would not have to pay if they entered Manhattan by all but two of the city-owned East River bridges, which are now free to cross, as long as they bypassed the congestion zone.

The proposals are part of a report by a task force, “Fix NYC,” convened by Governor Cuomo after he declared a state of emergency in the subways last June. The report says that the fees on taxis and for-hire vehicles could be put in place within a year, followed by trucks and then cars in 2020. None of those fees should be charged, the task force said, until repairs are made to the public transit system.

“Before asking commuters to abandon their cars, we must first improve mass transit capacity and reliability,” a draft of the report says.

This is a better plan than I expected and approximates Michael Bloomberg’s doomed proposal from 2008. That we have gone nowhere in the past decade is very telling, and that this plan doesn’t come with East River Bridge tolling parity is disappointing. But a Start is a start is a start, and if Cuomo accepts this plan, it can be a building block to something better and more complete down the road.

In no order, though, some questions:

  • If the 59th St. and Brooklyn Bridges aren’t rolled and can be used to enter or exit the cordon zone without paying the fee, how can we protect against massive increases in traffic across those bridges?
  • What transit upgrades can be implemented by 2020 that will be sufficient enough for the panel to be comfortable with the implementation of the traffic fee? Reliability and capacity increases take years or decades to see through, and not months.
  • Can anyone really Fix NYC without MTA construction cost reforms?
  • Is this a real plan that stands a chance of passing the New York State Assembly and Senate or is this just a CYA report to bolster Cuomo’s reelection campaign? With the Cuomo-supported plan to give Senate control to the state Republicans via the breakway IDC Senators, any traffic plan faces a tough hurdle in the state legislature. Will Cuomo push for this plan so that it passes the Senate or is just supposed to make him look like he tried, but failed, to fix city streets, traffic and the MTA?
  • Will the mayor finally experience his own come-to-Jesus moment on traffic pricing or will he continue to lie, distort reality and reverse himself in discussing a plan that will impact guys like him who live in NYC for decades but are seemingly allergic to the subway?
  • Do all of the players involved realize congestion pricing is only one part of fixing the bus network and solving transit woes and that other reforms are badly needed?

Some of these questions should be answered in Friday’s report; others may take a few weeks to unfold as we see the political forces line up behind (or against) the Fix NYC recommendations. Either way, this is a start and, while far from perfect, a good one at that.

Categories : Congestion Fee
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A recent report by NYC Comptroller Scott Stringer highlighted the ongoing problems with NYC’s bus network.

New York City’s subway crisis built very slowly over the past few years before cascading into a disaster in early 2018. So far, in the early going this year, nearly every rush hour commute has been plagued by delays on multiple subway lines, and the MTA’s subway action plan, as Nicole Gelinas recently detailed, hasn’t been a single dividend yet. Delays are, in fact, up since Cuomo announced this initiative.

This is of course the well-covered transit crisis, but the city is suffering through another transit crisis as bus ridership and service reliability has been tanking in slow motion over the past decade. In fact, based on trends through the end of October, without a massive influx in riders in November and December, average weekday bus ridership for 2017 will be below 2 million riders per day, a low mark not seen since the early part of the last decade, and a decline of over 170,000 riders per day since the high-water mark in 2012. Buses serve a key segment of New York City, and regular riders are less wealthy and more dependent on transit than the average subway rider. That ridership is cratering amidst worsening service and few are focusing on the issue is alarming.

A few weeks ago, New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer released an extensive report on improving the bus system. “Falling ridership, major slowdowns, and a bus infrastructure in decline is having an effect across the five boroughs,” he said in a release accompanying the report. “If we’re going to have a thriving economy tomorrow, we need to rebuild our bus system today. By unleashing innovative technologies, as well as honing in on strategies that improve reliability and service, we can change the game for New Yorkers. This cannot be a problem that is swept under the rug – this is an economic and social imperative that is critical to our future. The status quo is unacceptable, and we have to do better.”

The report covers some familiar ground — New York city’s buses average, for instance, 7.4 miles per hour, slowest among the United States’ major bus networks and average speeds in Manhattan aren’t much faster than walking. In fact, thanks, in part, to these slow speeds, Manhattan has seen a 16 percent decline in ridership since 2011. Stringer’s report rightly places this decline in a larger economic context of shifting job centers as “residents of every borough are now more likely to commute within their home borough than to,” a reality the subway network cannot accommodate but one the MTA has not considered as part of a badly needed update to the bus network.

I’ll come back to the issue of network design shortly, but first, a glimpse at how technology is affecting speed and service. Stringer’s report finds that buses are in motion only around half the time. Much of the travel time is attributable to waiting at red lights (21%) and waiting at bus stops (22%). Bus stops are, of course, unavoidable, but dwell times can be reduced through a pre-board fare payment system or all-door boarding. The MTA hasn’t definitively committed to such approach when it phases out the Metrocard over the next few years, but without this promise, buses will continue to be slowed down by the MTA’s own choices. Meanwhile, signal prioritization on major bus routes, a long-sought-after reward, has been slow in coming, as NYC DOT and the MTA have not coordinated particularly closely on bus technology. Truly dedicated lanes with aggressive enforcement should also improve speed and reliability. This is of course hardly a secret, but one worth hammering at every opportunity.

Winding bus routes are indicative of a network in need of a redesign.

And what of that network design? It’s totally inadequate, Stringer charges. Here’s Stringer on the long and winding bus routes:

In Budapest, the typical bus route does not exceed 25 minutes from end-to-end. There is a clear logic to this policy: the longer the route, the greater likelihood for delays to accumulate and cascade down the entirety of the line. New York City buses do not follow this standard. Routes can span nearly two hours and travel well over ten miles. In fact, the average local route in Staten Island is 10.6 miles and the average citywide is 6.8 miles. Of the ten longest routes in the city, four are in Staten Island and three are in Brooklyn.

These ten routes are not only long, they are also meandering, averaging 13 turns each. Frequent turns along a route will slow down a bus, forcing it to wait for an opening in traffic and carefully maneuver onto a new road. This can be dangerous, as turns carry a higher likelihood for collisions. Most importantly, turns are indicative of indirect, slow routes that are riddled with detours. On dozens of the city’s routes—particularly in Staten Island, Queens, and Brooklyn—buses will intermittently exit a major road to do a quick loop around local streets. This can be infuriating for riders, who wish to get to their final destination as quickly and directly as possible.

The MTA has, in fact, acknowledged the efficacy of straighter routes, stating that “bus service is more reliable when operated in a straight line than when many turns exist along the route.” Unfortunately, they too rarely follows their own dictum. Among the city’s 220 local routes, 38 feature at least 15 turns and 97 have ten or more.

To solve this problem, Stringer urges the MTA to take Chicago’s lead. The Windy City has implemented a streamlined grid approach with shorter routes and less duplicative service. By offering more frequent service and well-timed connections (as well as a robust transfer policy), a better designed bus network can offer better service. (And this doesn’t even begin to touch upon stop spacing, another problem Stringer highlights in his report, as bus stops are too close together and spacing is largely inconsistent throughout the city.)

Ultimately, the report includes numerous recommendations across a variety of topics, and I’m hitting only the highlights in this post. I’d urge you to browse through the entire report and digest the findings. In the end, the current bus network is not designed to provide good connections to the subway and hasn’t been restructured to get people from where they live to where they work (or otherwise want to go). The technology to speed up buses lags behind global leaders in the field, and the MTA and NYC DOT haven’t committed to creating a bus infrastructure that will combat the massive ridership declines. Meanwhile, with regular bus riders making on average just $24,000 per year, this sagging infrastructure and collapsing mode of transit hits hardest those who can least afford another route home.

So while the subway collapse is spectacular and very public, borne out through daily delays and the general frustration of a city at its wits’ end, the bus crisis is an insidious undercutting of the city’s most vulnerable. Stringer’s report garnered some headlines late in the fall, and it deserves to be rebroadcast, but are the right people listening? Are they ever?

Categories : Buses
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Can the city save its subway system before it’s too late? The Times Magazine Section asked just that question this weekend.

Needless to say, taking the subway these days is a bit of a crapshoot. Last week, before it even started snowing, the MTA couldn’t sustain semi-reliable service during Wednesday night’s rush hour commute as crews were working to move trains out of the way of an incoming snow storm while dealing with the fallout from a mid-morning assault at Jay St. and a signal problem along 4th Ave. in Brooklyn. It resulted in multi-hour commutes for thousands of people who just wanted to get home before a winter storm descended on the city, but it even seemed very familiar to anyone watching the subway system’s slow-and-then-fast descent into unreliability and madness. Things are a mess. When will they get better?

Riders aren’t the only people wondering about the fate of the subway. Following The Times’ exposé before the New Year on the MTA’s out-of-control cost problem, the Grey Lady took another deep dive underground this weekend. In a magazine piece that’s been months in the work, Jonathan Mahler made the case of the subways, as his headline suggests. The idea that New York City must absolutely invest in its subways seems like one you and I may take for granted, but Mahler’s piece is somber reminder of the path we may face if our politicians do not find a way to fix the subways.

Coming just a few days after Brian Rosenthal’s magnum opus on costs, Mahler’s piece overlooks the reality that the MTA probably shouldn’t be trusted with massive amounts of dollars before reforms are implemented, but that is besides the point. In fact, the editorial board of the paper cleared up that conflict today, and more on that later. Mahler’s piece takes a deep dive into the importance of the subway to very fabric of New York City and concludes that we simply cannot afford to whiff on the opportunity to fix the subways. Doing so could lead to an inexorably decline in the success of this city. Mahler too pinpoints the class issues inherent in the discussion, a notable aspect of any discussion of public transit. “Can the gap between rich and poor be closed,” he asks, “or is it destined to continue to widen? Can we put the future needs of a city and a nation above the narrow, present-day interests of a few? Can we use a portion of the monumental sums of wealth that we are generating to invest in an inclusive and competitive future?”

The essence of his piece is laid bare in a comparison with international views on subway systems:

Most countries treat subway systems as national assets. They understand that their cities are their great wealth creators and equality enablers and that cities don’t work without subways. The public-private corporation that runs Hong Kong’s subway expects 99.9 percent of its trains to run on time, and they do. (If you are traveling to the airport, you can also check your luggage at a central downtown train station and not see it again until you’ve landed at your destination. Imagine!) China has been feverishly building new metro systems in cities across the country, a recognition that subways are the only way to keep pace with the nation’s rapid urbanization and the needs of its citizens. And it’s not just new cities that are seeing major investments in their subways. Two decades ago, the decline of London’s Underground became a national crisis; now it’s moving toward running driverless trains. For that matter, Los Angeles — Los Angeles — recently embarked on a 40-year, $120 billion project to build out its mass-transit system.

New York City’s subway, meanwhile, is falling apart. If you are a regular rider, you know this firsthand. But even if you aren’t, it has probably become difficult to ignore all the stories about the system’s failure: the F train that was trapped between stations for close to an hour without power or air conditioning, the Q train that derailed in Brooklyn, the track fire on the A line in Harlem that sent nine passengers to the hospital. The cumulative impression of all these miserable underground experiences — and all these stories about miserable underground experiences — is that the situation is hopeless, that the subway cannot be fixed. The subway has been wrecked, and in this era of short-term thinking and government mistrust, public-works projects with benefits larger than any single mind can realize are no longer possible. But it is possible to fix the subway. And we must. Our failure to do so would be a collective and historic act of self-destruction.

Mahler’s piece, magazine-length at that, deserves a close parsing, and he traces the political machinations over responsibility for the decline of the subway. It features stunning photos by Damon Winters of a system falling apart, and it concludes that no amount of money is too little to spend on the subway:

Just this partial list — I haven’t included the platform doors, for instance — brings the total to about $111 billion. It’s a big number. But not when you put it in context. New York City and its environs generated $1.7 trillion in gross metropolitan product in 2016. That’s roughly 9 percent of the nation’s overall G.D.P. How much of that activity is dependent on the subway? About a year before Hurricane Sandy, a state-funded group of scientists and engineers produced a comprehensive (and as it happens, prescient) report on the damage that a hundred-year storm surge could cause to the system. One of the study’s authors, Klaus Jacob, a geophysicist at Columbia University, told me that losing the subway for a month would cost the city about $60 billion in lost economic output.

The reality of this apocalyptic scenario hasn’t sunk in. Absent sufficient resources, the subway has been left with diminished ambitions and empty spectacles…

New York won’t die, but it will become a different place. It will happen slowly, almost imperceptibly, for years, obscured by the prosperity of the segment of the population that can consistently avoid mass transit. But gradually, an unpleasant and unreliable subway will have a cascading effect on New Yorkers’ relationship with their city. Increasingly, we will retreat; the infinite possibilities of New York will shrink as the distances between neighborhoods seem to grow. In time, businesses will choose to move elsewhere, to cities where public transit is better and housing is cheaper. This will depress real estate values, which will make housing more affordable in the short term. But it will also slow growth and development, which will curtail job prospects and deplete New York’s tax base, limiting its ability to provide for citizens who rely on its public institutions for opportunity. The gap between rich and poor will widen. As the city’s density dissipates, so too will its economic energy. Innovation will happen elsewhere. New York City will be just some city.

I generally agree with Mahler though believe cost reform must be a key part of any effort to fix the subways. After all, $100 billion spent efficiently will go a lot further if 30-40 percent of those dollars aren’t assumed to be the cost of corruption right off the bat. In a real city not beholden to corruption in fact, $100 billion could lead to a completely updated and modernized subway system, but we ad the people we elect to represent us seem stuck in this rut of ignoring the 800 pound gorilla in the room.

Mahler’s piece wasn’t the only one to make the case for the subways this weekend. Today, the edit”orial page of The Times includes a call for our leaders to do something. “Billions of dollars that could have gone to maintaining and improving the subways,” the piece notes, “have been wasted on exorbitant costs. Projects have also been delayed by mismanagement.” In fact, The Times notes that based on Alon Levy’s calculations, the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway could have cost a quarter of its $4.5 billion price tag were it built literally anywhere else in the world. Without cost reform, the editorial states, “no amount of revenue, whether it comes from higher fares, from a tax on millionaires as Mayor Bill de Blasio has proposed, or from congestion pricing as Mr. Cuomo has suggested, will be enough to fix the subways. Too many of those added dollars would be frittered away.”

And that’s the key. We can spend $100 billion; we can, as David Leonhardt eloquently argues, implement congestion pricing in a way that makes sense and improves New York city for everyone; we can vow to fix the subways. But until cost reform are part and parcel of any reform effort, no amount of money will fix the subway because it will all just be siphoned away into the great unknown of the New York City subway system’s blackhole of institutional corruption.

Categories : MTA Economics
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The world’s most expensive subway construction project opened a year ago. Can the MTA take the steps needed for cost reform? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Why do New York rail construction projects cost so much? In essence, with a $5-$6 billion tag attached to Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway on the horizon (let alone the recent politicking over the fate of the Gateway Tunnel), this is the big question plaguing New York. With limited dollars not going nearly as far as they do the world over, the MTA’s cost problems are a significant barrier to New York City transit expansion.

For years, those watching the MTA have rung the alarm on the agency’s high construction costs. I’ve written about cost concerns and the ever-increasing budgets for big-ticket MTA capital projects for years, and I’m not alone. Alon Levy has, since this post in 2011, charted the absurd costs of U.S. rail construction in detailed comparisons with international peers, and Stephen Smith, via the @MarketUrbanism twitter feed, has beaten the cost drum. When challenged, MTA officials have acknowledged that construction costs, but no one has tackled the twin issues of cost transparency and cost control. No one, that is, until last week, when The Times ran a massive front-page story charting all the reasons why NYC transit construction are so high.

As the finale in the series that started with an in-depth look at our unfolding transit crisis, Brian Rosenthal, with help from Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière, has done what the MTA or the New York State Comptroller should have done years ago: They scrutinized MTA spending and took a deep dive into the agency’s contracting practices, staffing policies and lack of productivity in a way that lays bare just how bad the MTA is at managing big-ticket construction projects or getting a good return on its dollar. The article is, essentially, the story of how institutionalized corruption has become the norm in New York City. I highly urge you to read the entire piece and peruse through my instant reaction Twitter thread from Friday. I’ll excerpt a bit here.

First, the lede in which no one knows what 200 people are doing as part of the East Side Access project, a $12.5 billion project that costs, as The Times notes, seven times more than similar work elsewhere:

An accountant discovered the discrepancy while reviewing the budget for new train platforms under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything,” said Michael Horodniceanu, who was then the head of construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit in New York. The workers were laid off, Mr. Horodniceanu said, but no one figured out how long they had been employed. “All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

At the outset, the article blames everyone and dives in from there. I haven’t seen a more succinct summary of the MTA’s problems than this excerpt:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.
Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say. Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

Meanwhile, when faced with the conclusions of The Times’ reporting, the MTA pointed to its favorite bogeyman — New York exceptionalism. Projects cost a lot in New York because things are expensive. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pointed at ” aging utilities, expensive land, high density, strict regulations and large ridership requiring big stations.” In the reporters’ fact-based world, none of this would fly:

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical. “Those sound like cop-outs,” said Rob Muley, an executive at the John Holland engineering firm who has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and visited the East Side Access project, after hearing Mr. Lhota’s reasons.

In Paris, which has famously powerful unions, the review found the lower costs were the result of efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants. In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected. “They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”

So what makes MTA projects cost so much? One answer is overstaffing. As I have detailed before, the MTA staffs upwards of 25 people on TBM projects while most other nations use around 10 for similar work. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world. That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access.

And then of course there is good old fashioned featherbedding. As Rosenthal details, the Sandhogs’ union gets a free perk just because the MTA uses TBMs, a technology that has been employed to dig subways for the better part of 50 or 60 years. As he writes, “One part of Local 147’s deal entitles the union to $450,000 for each tunnel-boring machine used. That is to make up for job losses from ‘technological advancement,’ even though the equipment has been standard for decades.”

Besides the obvious institutionalized corruption and back-patting, Rosenthal details how the MTA’s own practices lead to significantly higher costs. This is a key part:

Mr. Lhota, the M.T.A. chairman, agreed that leaving negotiations to unions and vendors may be problematic. “You’re right; in many ways, there’s this level of connection between the two,” he said. But the chairman said he did not know what could be done about it. Hiring nonunion labor is legal but not politically realistic for the M.T.A. The transit authority could get unions to agree to project-specific labor deals, but it has not.

The profit percentage taken by vendors also is itself a factor in the M.T.A.’s high costs. In other parts of the world, companies bidding on transit projects typically add 10 percent to their estimated costs to account for profit, overhead and change orders, contractors in five continents said. Final profit is usually less than 5 percent of the total project cost, which is sufficient given the size of the projects, the contractors said.

Things are much different in New York. In a series of interviews, dozens of M.T.A. contractors described how vendors routinely increase their estimated costs when bidding for work. First, the contractors said, the vendors add between 15 and 25 percent as an “M.T.A. Factor” because of how hard it can be to work within the bureaucracy of the transit authority. Then they add 10 percent as a contingency for possible changes. And then they add another 10-12 percent on top of all that for profit and overhead.

The MTA takes a laissez-faire relationship to its contractors’ agreements with labor unions and then sits back as the contractors build in extra costs (and profit margins) to their agreements. No wonder the contractors want the MTA capital plan to be as expensive as possible as high amounts of available dollars lead them to realize more profits. And the examples are endless. Rosenthal notes that other countries’ bidding processes lead to as many as eight bids on complex construction work whereas the MTA sees two that often come in far higher than estimated. MTA Board members meanwile, are keen to wash thier hands of graft:

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. One was Anil Parikh, the director of the Second Avenue subway project. He got a $2,500 ticket to a gala, a round of golf and dinner from a contractor in 2002. Years later, shortly after the line opened, he went to work for the contractor’s parent company, AECOM. Mr. Parikh and AECOM declined to comment.

A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010. “I don’t think it’s corrupt. But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

Firms that donate to politicians and operate a revolving door between their offices and the public sector are the only ones to bid on complex projects and they do so at inflated costs. It’s graft, and whether it’s legal is a big open question mark in my mind. But don’t sleep on MTA ineptitude either; the agency after all hired three “operational readiness” consultants for East Side Access ten years before construction work is set to wrap on the project. The waste and the rot run deep.

As you read The Times piece, you may be wondering what happens next. After all, MTA officials have been on the record acknowledging these problems for years, but they never act. Horodniceanu talked about overstaffing on TBM projects years ago, and he never acted. A faction on the MTA Board recently started raising concerns over contracting dollars, but the full board still voted to approve all projects. And the $6 billion Second Ave. Subway phase looms large.

As I see it, two people could fix this mess. One is Andrew Cuomo. He could exert the leverage he has over the MTA and the labor unions to get both sides to come to the table on a solution. Unfortunately, he has shown no willingness to challenge union costs, and he has used the MTA for political show only. The other person is New York State AG Eric Schneiderman who could use his office’s legal powers to investigate these contracts and, if legally feasible, start prosecuting all of these players for fraud. That would be a big shock to the New York state construction graft industry but is a reach legally with standards for proving this type of corruption very high these days.

Are we stuck then? Is the only outcome a well-deserved Pulitzer nomination for Rosenthal and The Times and vindication for Stephen Smith, Alon Levy, and the thousands of transit nerds who have listened to them over the years? I hope something more comes out of this series of articles. The future of reasonably priced transit projects in NYC depends on it. But even with everything out in the open, corruption has a way of persevering absent a major shock to the system that enabled it in the first place.