There is a question hovering around Amtrak’s Hudson River tunnels that no one really wants to ask. Faced with the wake-up call that was Superstorm Sandy and the lingering fallout from Gov. Christie’s decision to cancel the ARC Tunnel, will we act on additional trans-Hudson capacity before it’s too late? Will we even know when it’s almost too late to act? A rational society would have started work on Gateway or a similar project three years ago, but welcome to America in 2015, where only Amtrak seems to be driving forward with eye on a potentially calamitous future.
The backstory is simple: Even before Sandy, Amtrak’s tunnels were nearing the end of their life. The North River Tunnels opened for passenger service in 1910, and the need to supplement them so top-to-bottom overhaul doesn’t severely disrupt Northeast Corridor travel has been a pressing concern for a while. The ARC Tunnel plan was supposed to lighten the load so that most New Jersey Transit traffic would shift out of Amtrak’s tunnels. A few years after Christie’s move, Sandy dumped a load of corrosive saltwater into the tunnels, thus pushing them ever closer to A Problem.
What that Problem — with a capital P — may be is still open for debate. Barring a total catastrophe, the solution will likely require shutting down one of the two tubes for some period of time, thus reducing trans-Hudson capacity from 24 trains per hour to around six. That’s a Problem, and even the threat of such a future — which isn’t exactly too hard to imagine — should spur action.
Lately, it has in fact spurred some action but from an unlikely source. Amtrak is taking the charge, and the national rail agency is using every ounce of political support it can muster to push through Gateway. As a recent piece in Crain’s New York detailed, the agency’s leaders think they just might be able to succeed. Andy Hawkins had more on Amtrak’s Chair Anthony Coscia’s attempts to drag this project from an idea to reality. The story begins with Coscia stating, “We’re doing it” and goes from there:
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak could begin the environmental review process this fall, and has already spent about $300 million on preparatory work and land acquisition, even though the estimated $15 billion needed for the larger Gateway project, which includes the tunnel, has not been lined up.
“We’re taking precious resources and spending it on a project we don’t have all the money to build,” he said. “It’s either a very silly decision or a very critical one.”
He’s betting on the latter. By his reckoning, a tunnel has to be built sooner or later, and sooner is better. The two heavy-rail tunnels connecting New Jersey and New York are more than 100 years old. and are showing their age. Twenty-four trains pass through the tunnels each hour—20 from New Jersey Transit, four from Amtrak—and officials predict that within 20 years, one or both tunnels will need to be closed for repairs. That would reduce capacity to six trains per hour, because trains traveling in opposite directions would need to wait for the lone remaining tunnel to clear…
Mr. Coscia said Amtrak has sketched out a potential financing package that includes federal funds, infrastructure bonds and Amtrak’s own cash. He said it would premature to discuss who might contribute what. However, the project’s numerous stakeholders can be expected to chip in. They include the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, New Jersey Transit, New York City, the states of New York and New Jersey, the federal government and of course Amtrak.
As Hawkins notes in his article, Gateway is both incredibly necessary and incredibly daunting. It would increase capacity across the Hudson River at a time when transit absolutely must expand to support growing the East Coast, and without Gateway, the worst-case scenario is pretty bad. Meanwhile, Amtrak has to scope the project and assess the costs of land acquisition on both sides of the river as well as a new or expanded terminal in Manhattan and plan for potential connections eastward and northward.
As we’ve seen, massive transit projects in the East Coast happen in half-decades (or longer) rather than in any sane timeline, and Gateway will be no exception. At a time of major political divides in Congress, Amtrak needs all the support it can get. It’s promising that the agency is going out on a limb to spend money today for something it may not be able to build tomorrow. At least they’re thinking about the future when few other agencies, both local and national, are. Can they deliver? It, of course, remains to be seen, but it’s not particularly hyperbolic to state that New York’s economic future may depend on it.
With the Gateway Tunnel project back in the news (more on that next week), the idea of a new Penn Station, a seemingly inseparable part of that plan, is creeping through the coverage. At some point in the not-to-distant future, various stakeholders will have to start having serious conversations about these plans, but for now, we’re still in that stage where ideas are being tossed around left and right.
One intriguing thought comes to us from Alon Levy. He first suggested doing away with the Penn Station South element of the Gateway proposal all together and simply running trains through to Grand Central. And then, earlier this week, he offered up his take on the debate over the future of the current Penn Station: Turn into a hole in the ground.
His idea is fairly simple: The street would serve as a mezzanine, and there’s no real need for the anachronistic amenities of a head house. This ain’t, in other words, the 1930s. Despite his intentions as admittedly trollish at the start, Levy later offered up a technical defense of his plan, and it’s well worth your read. The problem is one of politics. Our region’s politicians prefer monuments to themselves and often eschew practical and less costly approaches. A covered hole in the ground wouldn’t lend itself to a fanciful ribbon-cutting, and those calling for a new Penn Station will say Levy’s idea is hardly worth the Moynihan Station name. What a shame.
Meanwhile, it’s Friday night, and you know what that means. Click through for the service changes. Read More→
Back in October of 2010, then-gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo let slip a few words on the MTA and transit funding. It was a rare moment of transportation candor for a candidate who hadn’t even acknowledged the MTA existed throughout much of the summer, and his comments then certainly ring true through his actions today. Without giving details on sources of transit funding, he said, “There’s going to be a number of revenue raisers. The instinct is going to be to say ‘more money more money more money.’ I understand that. Part of the discipline I want to bring is a fiscal discipline to the state and the MTA. The answer can’t always be more money.”
Flash-forward five years to today. The MTA is mired in another economic crisis, this one on the capital side, and after years of doing nothing, Cuomo is still simply doing nothing. Funding proposals, some more politically challenging than others, are awaiting action, but the Governor is content simply to parrot himself. In comments earlier today, Cuomo reiterated his tried-and-true line. The MTA’s problems, he said, will not be addressed with “more money more money more money.” Considering that the MTA’s problems are a distinct lack of money, it’s bold to shoot down the end result before even tackling how to get there, but that’s Cuomo for one.
On the one hand, Cuomo is accidentally right. The solution to the MTA’s problems shouldn’t just be only more money; it should also involve an aggressive attempt at getting capital construction costs under control through some combination of union-focused work-rule reform, a better bidding process and a concerted effort to understand why transit construction costs in New York City are exponentially greater than anywhere else in the developed world. But on the other hand, the solution will involve more money, and Cuomo’s new-found fiscal restraint is stunning considering his past actions.
As recently as April of 2014, the MTA had a chance to address some of the sources of its rampant costs as negotiations with the TWU over a new contract lingered unresolved, but Cuomo needed the support of labor in what was then his reelection campaign. So, by all accounts, as is his wont as the agency’s ultimate boss, he pushed the MTA to accepte a contract very favorable to its workers. The MTA exacted no work-rule reform or other staffing concessions that could have led to cost savings. Now, faced with a $15 billion gap, Cuomo’s answer is to withhold funding or any solution.
I’m not keen on giving the MTA a pure blank check for capital costs without reform, but Cuomo’s faux come-to-Jesus moment on the MTA’s cost woes is 18 months and a few billion dollars too late. Plus, he needs a new line. “More money more money more money” is going to be the answer in the end.
As the public deadline for completion of the Second Ave. Subway nears, stories about the W train have been popping up with near-monthly regularity. So even though the MTA stated last month that Astoria service wouldn’t be reduced when the Q is re-routed to the Upper East Side, they were happy to reiterate this position when amNew York came a-knockin’. Although the MTA hasn’t identified just how service patterns will change or what the new Astoria service will be called, this time around, word on the street is that reviving the W is firmly under consideration.
Marc Beja’s story covers some familiar territory. The MTA isn’t saying much publicly about service patterns, but the agency has held various off-the-record conversations with rider advocates and neighborhood groups acknowledging that the current N train alone is not sufficient for Astoria subway riders. One of the ideas on the table is reviving the W — a local in Manhattan that terminated at Whitehall St. and ran to Astoria.
Reiterating the MTA’s position on subway frequency, Kevin Ortiz, a Transit spokesman, said to the daily, “The current level of service in Astoria will not decrease. Reviving the W, he said, “certainly has been discussed; no decision has been made.” That the MTA already has yellow and black W roll signs and route bullets in the BMT rolling stock is probably telling, but no decision has to be made until a few months before the Second Ave. Subway opens — which at best means next summer will be the deadline for the W’s rebirth.
While it’s always comforting for Astorians to hear that their subway service will not be worse off once the Second Ave. Subway opens, Beja’s article delves into the ins and outs of re-signing the system for a new service. In these paragraphs are some gems:
As far as communicating the W’s return, the MTA has already budgeted for new signs and maps once the Second Avenue Subway goes online. It shouldn’t create extra confusion or costs to make other changes at the same time.
John Montemarano, director of station signage since 1994 and an MTA employee of 35 years, has seen the birth of the W, V and Second Avenue Subway, as well as the death of the W, V and No. 9. Other lines have shrunk, grown and changed because of ridership shifts, budget changes, the 9/11 attacks and Sandy damage. Now, new stations are being finished along Second Avenue and the No. 7 line.
If the MTA adds or revives a line, Montemarano said he would need about four months to get the transit system ready. It would take that long for the 48 workers in his department to survey the stations, design signs, check their accuracy and then create signs in the Brooklyn shop that would be loaded into trains to carry them to each station for installation. A small station would need about 60 new signs, while a larger station like 34th Street-Herald Square will need closer to 800. Small circular decals cost about $5 to make up, while bigger signs can be upwards of $200.
This is a glimpse inside a bureaucracy at work, but there’s also a quote from Richard Barone at the RPA that highlights how cumbersome this four-month lead time for a service change can be. While the signage team says they have these types of changes “down to a science,” Transit has been loathe to experiment with different routing at different times a day. “In some ways,” Barone said, “I wish the MTA would play around with services more, sort of experiment with service changes more.”
With the need to bring online some new service in a year and a half, the MTA has a chance to play around with services. They could run the W through the Montague St. Tunnel and down 4th Ave. to Bay Parkway as supplemental local service. They could restore express service to the N while running the W local or use the W as an express in Manhattan with the N local. This is a great time to assess changing transit patterns and customer needs along a stretch of line many consider to be underserved right now. We’ll find out if the MTA’s hulking bureaucracy can think creatively for a few months as the W — or something similar — returns.
In an alternate universe where New York City politicians and planners aren’t afraid to take risks, yesterday was a big day for the M86. In this alternate universe, after a short planning process, Transit’s second busiest crosstown route, averaging 24,000 weekday riders, saw massive upgrades as the city opted to close Central Park’s 86th transverse to cars during peak hours, install a signal prioritization system from river to river, ensure bus bulbs and dedicated lanes were in place and generally treat the M86 as worth being a crosstown route over 30 blocks north of the nearest cross-Manhattan subway line.
That’s not what happened. Instead, as part of the Mayor’s promise to call 20 routes “Select Bus Service” by some indeterminate time that was originally supposed to be the end of 2017, a bunch of politicians gathered on the West Side to celebrate the launch of the M86 SBS. After eight years of talking about it, the M86 got a pre-board fare system, multi-door boarding, a few queue jump lanes that are already drawing NIMBY complaints, those weirdly unappealing new forward signs that replaced the hallmark SBS flashing blue lights, and the promise of some bus bulbs.
As part of the upgrades, every politician representing both the Upper East and Upper West Sides sent out a statement of support as though these upgrades are worth multiple rounds of back-slapping. In a moment of utter hilarity considering its taking nearly a decade to get here and the bus route was still late by a few weeks, State Senator Adriano Espaillat thanked NYC DOT for “quickly completing this project” while Jim Clynes, chair of Manhattan’s CB 8, noted that M86 SBS will have “a subway feel.” That everyone felt the need to gather in the first place is telling.
What DOT and the MTA did with the M86 will represent massive improvements in travel time for crosstown bus riders. Dwell times — especially at key locations where the M86 intersects busy subway lines at Central Park West and Lexington Ave. — represented the single biggest challenge to speedy crosstown operations, and if the city isn’t willing to give buses dedicated road space during commuting peak hours, pre-board fare payment and multi-entrance boarding are low-hanging fruit that pay key dividends for those 24,000 daily riders.
But these improvements are run-of-the-mill upgrades that are viewed as best practices for local buses the world over. The MTA didn’t eliminate any M86 stops; the bus still makes two stops on the same block of 86th St. between Columbus and Amsterdam Avenues. DOT didn’t reallocate street space except for some limited queue jump lanes that allow buses to get a hard start at red lights. So why the press conference?
When I posed this question earlier in the day, a few of my Twitter followers suggested, perhaps cynically but also accurately, that these improvements wouldn’t happen at all if politicians don’t have the opportunity to grab camera space while trumpeting them. Sadly, this is true, but on the flip side, I wondered if these improvements wouldn’t be treated as revolutionary if 15 politicians didn’t insist on showing up to press conferences or sending out statements every time the MTA and DOT implement on one bus line what other countries consider to be system-wide best practices. Every crosstown bus should feature a proof of payment that allows for multi-door boarding, and such a system should be implemented as soon as the fare payment kiosks are installed, not eight years after the first Community Board presentations.
Until we as a city and our politicians as our city leaders get over the need to have a press conference about something as mundane as a new fare payment system on one bus line and a few queue-jump lanes, we are doomed to watch our transit system die from a lack of Great Ideas and the will to implement them. Politicians should be asking “what took so long?” and “how soon can we get these improvements rolled out on the M79, M96 and M106?” rather than falling over themselves to congratulate the M86 for catching up with most of London’s regular bus service. Don’t slap a fancy name on these ops upgrades. Aim higher. Be better.
Having spent so much time traveling over the past few months, I’ve missed some key bits of subway news. While the broad strokes — a still-unopened 7 line extension, a renewed focus on opening the Second Ave. Subway on time, no action from Gov. Cuomo on the MTA’s capital funding gap — haven’t escaped my attention, some important items that deserve a post slipped by. One of those items was a May report from Scott Stringer’s office on the MTA’s inadequate cleaning efforts.
Over the past few years, the MTA has faced mounting criticism over trash and rats. One thing I noticed while traveling abroad is how utterly devoid other subway systems are of garbage on the tracks, garbage on the platforms, garbage bags sitting around. On the one hand, that’s because these systems shut down at night which give crews the ability to clean without disrupting service. On the other, keeping stations cleaner seems more ingrained in the cultural norms surrounding transit ridership. (Subway car cleanliness is a different beast.)
In New York, the MTA has tried to eliminate garbage cans from certain stations to encourage riders to take trash out of the system, and constant announcements remind us that trash can cause track fires and, thus, delays. Without an equal effort on the MTA’s part to actually clean, though, asking nicely won’t amount to much, and in that regard, according to the New York City comptroller, the MTA’s efforts are lagging woefully behind.
“The MTA is constantly reminding riders to clean up after themselves, but they’re setting a poor example by letting piles of trash on the tracks fester for months on end,” Stringer said. “Our auditors observed rats scurrying over the tracks and onto subway platforms, and it’s almost as if they were walking upright – waiting to take the train to their next meal. This is a daily, stomach-turning insult to millions of straphangers, and it’s unworthy of a world-class City.”
The report — available here as a PDF — paints a rather unflattering picture. Noting that the MTA has stressed Fastrack as a way to improve station and system cleanliness, Stringer highlights just how far its own goals the MTA is, especially considering the $240 million per year the MTA spends on cleaning and maintenance. For instance, the MTA wants its stations cleaned once every three weeks, and Stringer’s team found during its one-year audit that only seven stations were cleaned that frequently. Most underground stations were cleaned around 3-6 times per year while some were cleaned just once. One station — 138th St. on the Lexington Ave. IRT — wasn’t cleaned at all.
Meanwhile, as far as track cleanliness goes, the MTA aims to clean all tracks twice a year, but Stringer’s team found that the agency’s vacuum trains aren’t up to the task. One of the two trains was out of service for nearly the entire 12-month audit period while the functioning train picked up only around 30% of the debris. “Virtually all of the same trash,” the report noted, “remained in the roadbed after the vacuum train was employed to clean it up.”
For its part, the MTA didn’t dispute Stringer’s findings too aggressively and, in fact, agreed with most of them. The agency is buying three new vacuum trains that should be better than the two currently on hand, and they are working to better deploy cleaning crews to dirtier areas. But ultimately, these problems are economic and systematic. The MTA needs to — and should — budget more for cleaning crews. Stations are the most customer-facing part of the system, and they should be viewed as the visual presentation of the system. Riders take cues from their environment, and right now, the environment screams “garbage.” With the money to clean — and perhaps some flexibility on who can clean from the union — the system overall would look and feel much more inviting.
“Fares keep going up, but anyone who takes the trains can tell you that we haven’t seen a meaningful reduction in rats, garbage and peeling paint,” Stringer said. “New York City Transit management needs to get its priorities straight and start deploying its resources to help improve conditions underground.”
I’ve written extensively about Governor Cuomo’s attitude toward the subways. A self-proclaimed car guy, Cuomo doesn’t seem to understand the importance a healthy transit network plays in the growth and sustainability of New York City and its effect on the New York State economy. And so Cuomo has been unwilling to listen to advocate call for solutions to the MTA’s capital funding gap, and the fear of massive fare hikes or service cuts loom large while low-hanging fruit, such as the Move New York plan, are left in limbo.
To draw attention to the MTA’s funding plights and the pressure record ridership is placing on the system, the Riders Alliance has previously invited Cuomo for a rush-hour subway ride, and the governor has met the invitation with silence. So the advocates took matters into their own hands and dragged Cuomo — or at least a facsimile of him — onto the subway. Take a look at Streetsfilm’s accompanying video. It is an excellent piece of theatrical advocacy. If only the real Cuomo were paying any attention.
Meanwhile, there are weekend changes on every line except the Shuttles and the G train. They follow after the jump. Read More→
So it’s been quite a whirlwind spring and early summer for me. Since early May, as many of you, especially those who follow me on Instagram, know, I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Chicago, Boston and Paris, with my own wedding in between. I’ve ridden high-speed trains through France and Sweden, and I’ve had the opportunity to ride subways or Metros in six different cities including New York. It’s eye-opening to see what other cities are doing that we’re not and what works and what doesn’t.
Over the next week, while also exploring local issues such as the MTA’s trash problems and potential sources of Second Ave. Subway delays, I’d like to offer some observations regarding these other transit networks. I don’t think everything outside of New York is perfect, but there are certain practices the MTA could easily adopt that would improve everyone’s rides. First among those are open gangways — something I wrote about in April. Trains in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris all enjoyed open gangways, and it’s a marked improvement in terms of access and crowding.
The other real revelation concerns integration between various different modes of transit through city centers. In both Berlin and Paris, the more suburban-focused rail lines — the S-Bahn and the RER, respectively — operate essentially as Metros through the city center. They both run on subway-like frequencies, and fare structure for intra-city travel is the same as it would be on the U-Bahn or Paris’ Metro. Such operational practices improve mobility and, again, reduce crowding.
I’ll delve more in depth on these topics later, but needless to say, not everything is perfect. These systems do not run 24 hours a day, and the absence of air conditioning was a major drawback last week in Paris when temperatures outside were hovering at the 100-degree mark. And the routing of Paris’ Metro lines was apparently put to paper by a guy half asleep drawing semi-circles and meandering lines around the city. But again, more on that later. I’m still battling jetlag so I’ll be brief tonight. There’s plenty more to come.
Since the MTA and New York City’s DOT debuted Select Bus Service in 2008, I haven’t been particularly impressed by the program or the rollout. Heralded as the next best thing in buses for New York City, it’s barely BRT-lite, and it’s taken nearly a decade for the city and MTA to identify and plan only a handful of best-practices improvements to local bus routes. If anything, adding bus lanes that aren’t physically separated with only the bare minimum of lane enforcement along with pre-boarding fare payment (and fare checks that, at the start, slowed down service) should be standard on nearly all local bus routes. That we’re still waiting on something as basic as signal prioritization is telling.
Meanwhile, while most countries with real bus infrastructure would view these upgrades as laughably modest, in New York City, they become somehow controversial. Take a lane away for parked cars or moving personal automobiles? You may be better off invading a small country. Suggest camera lane enforcement? Add flashing lights to a bus to distinguish service? Beware the wrath of know-nothing State Senators. (The MTA has finally introduced new destination signs that flash the words “+SELECT BUS” in amber on a blue background as subpar replacements for the blue lights. More on those soon.)
And yet, despite my skepticism, these SBS upgrades are real, if incremental, improvements, and if implemented properly, they ideally will help bolster ridership on city buses while cutting down on travel times. Thus, we as a city should embrace bus infrastructure and treat it as we would something positive. You try telling that to whoever’s responsible for this mess:
Select Bus Service stop in the greatest city on Earth. pic.twitter.com/l3bcJ9YEq8
— Brooklyn Spoke (@BrooklynSpoke) July 7, 2015
As you can see, Doug Gordon spotted this during his bike ride home on Tuesday. The SBS M15 stop near the Bowery Whole Foods is completed inundated with someone’s garbage bags and one of the fare payment machines is inaccessible as well. After some questioning, Whole Foods said to me that those bags weren’t theirs and instead belonged to the residential building above the store. I haven’t been able to reach the building yet, but Gordon tells me this is far from an isolated incident. It’s no way to treat a bus stop, let alone one that’s supposed to be a key stop on a flagship Select Bus Service line.
But that’s not the only way Select Bus Service is under attack. In a Gotham Gazette piece that follows months of anti-Select Bus Service writings, Allan Rosen, a former MTA planner and long-time reader and commenter on this site, claimed that the Woodhaven BRT plan could jeopardize the Second Ave. Subway. His rationale is that since the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway, estimated at around $4.5-$5 billion will compete with the $230 million BRT for New Starts funding, federally funded BRT could foreclose federal funds for the Second Ave. Subway.
This, of course, isn’t how the New Starts program works. The feds end up contributing money to nearly all projects deemed worthy, and they have, over the years, held up the Second Ave. Subway as the gold standard for worthiness based upon projected ridership. Meanwhile, the scale is off as Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is far, far more likely to be delayed by inaction from Albany than by an alleged fight over a few hundred million dollars.
If we dig into the history of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, we see diverse funding sources. Of the approximately $4.86 billion the feds say Phase 1 will cost, $1.3 billion comes New Starts and around $50 million originates out of other federal programs. The remainder breaks down as follows: $450 million from the 2005 State Transportation Bond Act and over $3 billion from MTA dedicated sources and PAYGO operating funds. The New Starts money that could go to either SAS Phase 2 or Woodhaven BRT is a drop in the bucket, and it certainly isn’t the bus upgrade’s fault that a northward extension of the Second Ave. Subway may be delayed.
It’s ultimately an indictment of New York City’s willingness to mimic that buses and bus upgrades can come under attack from all corners. We live in a very dense city that relies on its transit network, and yet simple improvements take years to introduce and engender unnecessarily emotional debates over priorities and street space. If New Yorkers are serious about transit upgrades, it’s time to take the buses — BRT, Select Bus Service, whatever you want to call it — seriously. That starts with taking care of bus stops and continues with honest discussions over proper funding mechanisms. Right now, we’ve seen none of that.
As major events go, for many New Yorkers, Superstorm Sandy is beginning to feel like ancient history. The storm swept through the region in late October of 2012, and while we shouldn’t overlook those communities still rebuilding and recovering, large parts of the city were untouched by the storm’s destructiveness. Thus, there is no small bit of cognitive dissonance that arises when something major happens in the name of Sandy repairs.
One of the ways in which Sandy has affected many New Yorkers who never saw the flood waters take out their homes and neighborhoods is, of course, via the subways. We’ve seen the images of flooded tunnels, and Brooklynites in particular have lived through R and G train shutdowns for repairs. Lately, though, other than work piggy-backed onto the 7 line weekend shutdowns for CBTC installation, it seems as though Sandy repairs in the tunnels have come to a standstill. (Other Fix & Fortify work not visible to riders has continued apace.) In April of 2014, we learned that the A and C trains’ Cranberry Tube would be the next to undergo repair work, and as late as November, the MTA had planned to do the work on 40 weekends throughout 2015. Well, here we are in late June with nary a sign of work on the 8th Avenue line.
That’s about to change as the Daily News reports that Fix & Fortify work will begin on the Cranberry Tubes on July 11 and run for 40 non-consecutive weekends over the next 16 months. That means work on the A/C lines won’t end until the fourth anniversary of Sandy, and the MTA will still need to address damage to the F train’s Rutgers Tubes, the IRT’s Clark St. and Joralemon St. tunnels and, of course, the L train work, which might begin before the decade is out.
For the MTA, the slow pace of construction isn’t a new problem. As we’ve seen with other capital projects, the agency can move only so fast, and during my Problem Solvers in March, John O’Grady spoke about the challenges the MTA faces. From the logistics of organizing various crews from various contractors to the difficulties of getting heavy machinery into tunnels built before the era of heavy machinery to the fact that it just takes a long time to move equipment into mile-long tunnels to the reality that only so many contractors are qualified for this work, the MTA can’t spend money as fast as it wants or we want.
Recently, the city’s Independent Budget Office issued a report on the slow pace of MTA spending, and they concluded that the delay in Albany’s addressing the capital budget doesn’t matter because the MTA doesn’t really start spending that money right away anyway. They still have cash on hand — and projects to complete — from previous years’ capital programs. (We still need Albany to act, but that’s another matter entirely.)
The report touched upon Sandy recovery work as well. By the end of 2014, the MTA had committed just 16 percent of Sandy recovery funds — $1.6 billion out of $9.7 billion — to actual work. The rest are in the design and planning stages, and a quick glance through the latest CPOC Board book shows work yet to be done. The MTA, of course, wants to spend money and build, but something — institutional, structural, bureaucratic — slows the pace.
Sandy repairs are going to pick up again and again, but it’ll years until the system is healed. So long as another storm doesn’t sweep in while the MTA is fixing and fortifying, New Yorkers will adjust to the headaches of service diversions as we have regularly on the weekends for years. But don’t be surprised to hear New Yorkers express their own surprise that repairs in late 2016 or 2017 or even 2018 are related to Sandy. Time clears the memory of just what those floodwaters did.