Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
As the MTA enters a fourth month of uncertainty regarding the agency’s proposed five-year plan, we’ve heard a big fat nothing from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office, and within the city, Mayor de Blasio is content to let Albany fiddle while asking the feds for more national support for transit. But while the Move New York fair tolling plan garners a groundswell of support, Assembly representative James Brennan is set to introduce a new piece of legislation aimed at shoring up capital funding for transit.
Brennan’s plan, announced via a Dana Rubinstein piece and subsequent Facebook post, could generate additional revenue against which the MTA could bond out its capital plan through a combination of gas and income taxes and would force New York City to pony up more money. That latter piece is important, and I’ll return to it soon. Brennan’s proposal is far from the platonic ideal, but it’s the first sign of real life we’ve seen from Albany on the MTA’s capital funding woes.
“To say that the MTA’s $14 billion shortfall is extremely alarming would be an understatement,” the Brooklyn representative said. “Now more than ever we need to think creatively about how to address our transportation funding needs as well as how to generate reliable consistent funding for our state’s infrastructure. For too long the state’s infrastructure and mass transit systems have operated with unreliable funding.”
His plan revolves around a new New York State Transportation Infrastructure Finance Authority that would issue the bonds to finance $20 billion in various MTA and other state infrastructure projects. My issuing the money under a new authority, Brennan’s proposal would not necessarily add more debt to the MTA’s already-sagging books, and it would instead rely on a new state agency to carry the fiscal load. To generate the revenue needed to issue these bonds, Brennan has called for a ten-cent increase in the state gas tax and an increase in the income tax rate for those earning between $500,000-$2 million a year of ½ of 1 per cent.
Brennan estimates these tax increases would generate around $1.25 billion per year. Yes, it’s true there are tax increases,” he said to Capital New York. “The idea of this is we are not running away from our problems.”
The third piece of this puzzle is more intriguing. Brennan’s legislation would demand that New York City pony up a mandatory contribution, starting with $60 million in year one and increasing each year of the five-year plan by $60 million annually. The contribution under this bill would thus be capped at $300 million. How the city generates this money is up to Mayor de Blasio and the City Council.
And therein lies the rub. Brennan’s plan isn’t Move New York. As Stephen Miller at Streetsblog wrote, “It lacks most of the traffic-busting, safety-enhancing benefits of toll reform.” But by essentially forcing the city’s hand, Brennan’s plan could spur City Council to pass a a home rule resolution requesting Albany approve a Move New York plan to help generate the revenue required by Brennan. It’s a roundabout solution to a tricky problem, but, as I said, someone is thinking about it.
So far, de Blasio’s and Gov. Cuomo’s offices have issued platitudes. Cuomo’s office said that efforts to solve the funding gap “will continue with all stakeholders” while de Blasio said he is “committed to investing in our infrastructure, which will only come with strong partnership between all levels of government.” The MTA, which won’t go to bat for any particular solution, expressed a desire to “engage in a robust dialogue” on closing the $14 billion gap.
For now, Brennan’s plan is the dialogue, but as the state has passed its budget, watchers expect Cuomo to begrudgingly turn some attention to the MTA’s funding gap. The ideas today start with gas and income taxes. Where it goes after is up for debate.
At one point earlier this winter, it seemed as though the perfect storm of MTA funding had appeared on the horizon. The MTA had issued a request for a funding plan for a $15 billion capital budget gap while New York State had a $6 billion windfall in fines from financial institutions. When the dust finally settled on the budget discussions this week, yacht owners earned themselves a tax break while the MTA received a big, fat nothing. Instead, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his staff plan to work toward a resolution on the capital plan while budget watchers and transit advocates are left shaking their heads in dismay as Albany again lets down New York City.
The idea that New York City commuters have long drawn the short straw in budget talks isn’t a new one. Cap’n Transit explored the issue in an April 2012 post that’s still sadly relevant today. This year, though, the disparity grew worse as Cuomo used the $6 billion windfall for upstate projects and potential toll relief for drivers who will eventually use the New New York Bridge. Unless the governor is going to make a big push for the Move New York fair tolling plan — and even if he does — this is a disappointing turn of events.
The coverage of the budget shenanigans has now turned its focus to the MTA. In a headline that is as much an understatement as anything the Daily News will ever run, a Glenn Blain story trumpets: “MTA not allocated enough money from state’s new budget, advocates charge.” In fact, “not enough” would be a welcome amount; rather, the MTA received $250 million earmarked for one of Cuomo’s own pet projects.
At City Journal, E.J. McMahon of the Manhattan Institute wrote a scathing piece on the Governor’s failures. He writes:
Incredibly, however, the only piece of the windfall Cuomo and the legislature aimed anywhere near the MTA is a $250 million appropriation to begin construction of a new Metro North commuter rail line from southeastern Westchester to Penn Station. The Penn Station access project is an odd one to be singled out for preferential funding. As the Citizens Budget Commission noted, “its total cost has not been reported, its benefits have not been quantified, and it is not clear why it is preferred” over other priorities in the MTA plan. The new line can’t become operational until the MTA completes its massive East Side Access project linking Long Island to Grand Central Terminal, which will free platform space at crowded Penn Station. The latest completion date for that chronically behind-schedule, over-budget project is 2023. For now, the MTA will have to settle for a token $750 million that Cuomo agreed to provide in bonded support for the transit capital program.
Ignoring the MTA’s needs made it possible for Cuomo to spend upward of $1 billion in remaining windfall cash on other purposes…Late in the recent budget negotiations, Senate Republicans tried to persuade Cuomo to set aside more of the windfall cash for transportation infrastructure, as well for municipal water and sewer projects. When the governor wouldn’t budge, they countered by authorizing more borrowing to supplement a separate bonded appropriation Cuomo had already proposed for highways and bridges. (In true Albany fashion, the legislative additions also included a pork-like $400 million “transformative investment” fund just for Long Island.)
…It’s all too common for crumbling infrastructure to be ignored until it poses an imminent threat to health or the smooth running of the local economy…The manner in which Cuomo and the Legislature have chosen to divvy up the windfall pie is sure to win them plenty of thank-yous over the next few years from politically wired developers, corporate executives, and unions around the state. But future generations of New Yorkers probably won’t feel as grateful.
Disappointing and expected. Now we head into a spring of uncertainty. The MTA can’t keep megaproject costs under control, and now they’ll continue to rely on a pay-as-you-go funding approach to a capital plan that needs support. I sound like a broken record, but trains are more crowded that ever. The MTA can ill afford to wait, but the last best chance just passed by. What comes next is a political blank slate with no easy solution in sight.
Sometimes, when I ride the subways during supposed off-peak hours, I’m reminded of a twist on a phrase Yogi Berra coined. Of a popular spot, the Yankee great once said, “Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.” In a way, it makes perfect sense and no sense at all, but applied to the subways, the inverse is seemingly true. Unfortunately, it’s too crowded, and everybody keeps going there.
My personal anecdote spans the course of this week. Hot on the heels of the MTA announcing that they recognize they have a crowded problem came some of the more crowded rides I’ve taken in months. I had to let some early-morning Q trains pass me by at 7th Ave. because it was impossible to board. Then, on Tuesday night, while coming back to Brooklyn from the Upper West Side, I had to stand all the way from 96th to Grand Army Plaza, and on Wednesday, journeying at 9 p.m. from Union Sq. back to 7th Ave., there were no seats to be had on my Q trains.
Traveling companions who boarded at Canal St. were shocked to find the train so crowded at a relatively late weeknight hour. “It never used to be this crowded,” one said to the other, and I nodded to myself. As recently as a five, let alone ten, years ago, the subways just weren’t this crowded. We’re living through an historically unprecedented explosion in ridership, and the MTA can’t catch up.
Right now, the problems facing the MTA are those of the present and those of the future. In the short term, the MTA, still years away from fully recovering from the effects of Sandy, has a backlog of repairs that need to be initiative. In the long term, to meet demands of today’s ridership, the MTA needed to start planning a decade ago, but right now, they’re stuck in a neutral planning for demands of the next decade without a fully funded five-year capital plan. There’s no easy way out of this conundrum.
The news isn’t exactly getting better for the financially beleaguered transit agency. In a comprehensive report issued this week [pdf], the Citizens Budget Commission examined the MTA’s finances and determined that the agency may face a funding gap greater than $15 billion. In a nutshell, the non-partisan group doesn’t believe the MTA has the cash on hand to make certain contributions to the budget, and thus, the funding gap is closer to $20 billion. On the one hand, this is all accounting sleight of hand, but on the other, someone — future New Yorkers and subway riders — will pay for more debt financing through steeper and more frequent fare hikes or worse service.
As part of the report, the CBC examined numerous funding options, and while no one around here went for their plan to cap unlimited ride MetroCards, the CBC has largely examined driving as a potential source of revenue. The new report discusses the Move New York tolling plan and a variety of fees and taxes on driving to fund transit expansion. These are ideas the MTA tentatively endorsed yesterday, and promisingly, the Board’s Staten Island rep seems to be on board. (For more on the CBC’s ideas, check out this video.)
But I keep coming back to the crowds. The MTA’s system in 2015 can’t handle increasing volumes, and nothing indicates ridership is going to decline. The MTA needs to start planning now for a future with even more straphangers, and they need the money to do so. Every day we wait is another day with trains too crowded for rush hour passengers, delays due to signal problems, and every transit woe in between.
Earlier on Wednesday, while browsing MTA news, I came across an interesting AP piece published on Crain’s New York with quite the inflammatory headline. “Why the Second Ave. subway could be delayed—again” the article said. With news of delays on the 7 line extension — this month due to emergency radios, last time due to elevators, escalators and vent plans — my first thought was that the December 2016 revenue service date was just a mirage. As I read closer, though, I realized this was about the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway and not the current one.
Phase 1 of the long-aborning subway — north from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. — is fully funded. Work may stretch into next year, but the money is in place. At this point, the only delays will arise if (or perhaps when) the MTA can’t get the project across the finish line, and those won’t come into view for another 18-20 months. Phase 2, despite a lack of concrete price tag, was included in the 2015-2019 capital plan, and as we know, that capital plan remains very much a work in progress.
Earlier on Wednesday during the MTA Board meeting, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about the affect a lack of funding could have on expansion plans. It’s a good 18 months until the MTA has to face this reality, and in the past, New York has come up with interim measures to keep capital programs moving on a two- or three-year basis. But the threat of a work slowdown at a time when the city is finally re-learning how to build new subway lines looms large.
Benjamin Mueller of The Times summarized the state of the capital program with the funding picture hazy at best:
The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday sought to reassure New Yorkers that the agency would secure the necessary funding to forestall what transit experts were warning about — a slump in service, overflowing subway trains and more frequent delays. The sense of alarm has been occasioned by a $15 billion gap in the agency’s five-year capital plan, which is meant to finance long-sought repairs and improvements to the city’s transit system. Transit officials and elected leaders are currently in discussions about how to fill that gap or, alternatively, to pare down costs.
But the authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, warned that future stages of major construction plans and renovations for the overtaxed system were at risk if officials were unable to come to an agreement. The full five-year plan calls for $32 billion.
“For a period of time, maybe a year or two, we’re O.K.,” Mr. Prendergast said after a board meeting. “But as you start to get down that path, we get to the point where if we don’t have money we can’t award design contracts, we can’t award construction projects.”
We could quibble for hours over whether the “or, alternatively” at the end of the firs excerpted paragraph should just said “and,” but the truth remains that the capital plan funding question is very much up in the air. Already a long, drawn-out affair, the Second Ave. Subway could very much be a casualty of politicking and lukewarm support for transit from the Governor.
Meanwhile, the Mayor went to Albany and did a great imitation of the pot calling the kettle black “”The State must do more to fund the MTA’s capital plan – a situation that is reaching crisis levels,” Bill de Blasio said. “The current MTA capital plan is woefully underfunded. The State’s investment has steadily declined over the last 14 years.”
So too, de Blasio declined to mention, has the city’s investment. They contribute the paltry sum of $100 million a year to a multi-billion-dollar capital plan, and de Blasio has proposed trimming that figure by 60 percent. Transit advocates, such as the Straphangers Campaign, were not impressed. “We need the Citiy’s leadership to press the State to do much better for the MTA’s millions of riders,” Gene Russianoff said in a statement.
There are only so many times we can say the same thing about the capital plan, but it’s hard to underscore the needs. The subways are more crowded that ever, and to keep up with demand, the system has to be able to sustain more frequent service in more areas. With the billions of dollars requested, the alternative is a scary one indeed.
Regular readers of this site have long cast a skeptical eye toward Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his distain for transit. His ideas — an AirTrain to LaGuardia via Willets Point — come out of nowhere and don’t align with transit needs or best practices. He’s thrown weight and tax dollars behind the stridently anti-transit QueensWay while ignoring the voices arguing for rail reactivation, and he’s done nothing to address the MTA’s $15.2 billion capital budget hole.
New York City, meanwhile, is sagging under the weight of record high subway riders. Yesterday, the MTA reported a total of 29 days in 2014 with over 6 million riders, and delays due to aging infrastructure — signal problems, rail conditions — seem rampant. That’s what the $15.2 billion is designed to address. While Cuomo is running away from, or at least ignoring, the problem, other groups such as the Move NY are thinking about the funding and traffic problems. It all might come to a head at some point.
My tiny corner of the Internet isn’t the only part taking note of the politicking though, and in yesterday’s Times, the paper’s editorial board called upon the Governor to, well, do something about it:
The state and city would seem obvious sources for much of this support. Mr. Cuomo, however, rejected the M.T.A. plan as “bloated” soon after it was submitted, even as some mass transit advocates regarded it as barely adequate. The governor’s latest budget gives the M.T.A. about $1.15 billion for these big projects over five years. Mayor Bill de Blasio has offered only $40 million a year as the city’s contribution, far lower than the usual $100 million.
These responses seem miserly when measured against the needs of a system that is already stuffed with passengers and expects at least one million more in the next 10 years. The requirements go beyond new cars; the M.T.A. proposes to replace more than 80 miles of track and a subway signaling system that is more than a half-century old and needs a $3 billion upgrade.
In the end, it is Mr. Cuomo who will have the most to say about whether this vital network thrives or deteriorates. He should help create a five-year capital plan that gives the M.T.A. some confidence about how to expand and maintain itself while he also finds the matching funds that upstate legislators will inevitably demand for bridges and roads in their constituencies. A short-term fix of a year or two is little more than a Band-Aid.
The Times highlights Move NY’s traffic pricing plan and a proposal by Richard Ravitch to raise the gas taxes. Either could address the funding gap, but so too, as the paper points out, would fare hikes, the last gasp for the MTA and a measure it can implement as it so chooses. As The Times notes, if the MTA is forced to “fall back on fare increases … those increases would have Mr. Cuomo’s name on them.” Best we not forget that.
As we approach the six-week mark of 2015, the MTA’s next five-year capital plan — all $32 billion of it — was supposed to kick off on January 1. Now, it’s not a surprise or out of the ordinary that nearly half of the plan’s funding isn’t in place or that the plan hasn’t been approved by the state’s Capital Program Review Board. Last fall’s rejection was a pro forma measure designed to attract political attention to the need to identify funding sources. What’s surprising is how utterly silent Albany and Governor Cuomo have been on the issue.
At this point in the debate, there has been no debate. The only action from Cuomo involved tossing a wrench in the form of the ill-designed LaGuardia AirTrain into the MTA’s plans and requiring the agency to re-write a portion of the five-year proposal. He hasn’t talked about funding mechanism; he hasn’t discussed new dedicated revenue streams; and he certainly hasn’t leaped to embrace anything as progressive as MoveNY’s traffic pricing plan. The silence is deafening.
It’s not though for lack of action and noise downstate. Earlier this week, Mayor Bill de Blasio — who thanks to politics has nearly no say over perhaps the most important element driving New York City development — essentially punted the MTA funding question to Albany where it belongs. The mayor recently proposed some new Select Bus Service routes and $300 million over funding over the next decade (though the proposal could be better), and that’s the extent of his control over major MTA moves. DOT can reallocate street space, and the MTA will provide the buses. Meanwhile, the mayor has asked Albany to do something about the capital funding gap.
De Blasio’s statements earlier this week echo comments he made last week. As Capital New York reported, hizzoner made it clear that Albany must find a solution. “I think clearly this an Albany question first and foremost,” the mayor said while on NY1. “Not only do we need to preserve the payroll tax that’s playing such a crucial role now, but I think we have to have a real debate about what Albany should do with its resources and what’s fair for the whole state.”
Of course, the city’s contribution to the MTA’s capital plan has stagnated at $100 million per year for decades. At a rate of inflation, the city should be contributing $363 million, but even that huge increase would leave a gap of nearly $14 billion. The city could do more, but by and large, de Blasio is looking in the right direction.
The mayor isn’t the only one squawking at Albany that isn’t really listening. On Wednesday, the Urban Land Institute of New York and the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA released a report and a fancy website highlighting why the region needs a fully funded MTA capital plan. The report highlight a bunch of facts anyone reading this far already knows — 90% of NY workers live in areas served by the MTA; the Lexington Ave. line carries more riders than subways in San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston combined; the MTA needs to keep investing in system renewal to avoid constant breakdowns, etc. But it’s important because it’s a salvo in a political fight.
“We need to focus on continuing to deliver to New York commuters an affordable, accessible transit network that is equipped for the challenges of tomorrow. As the city and state’s leaders determine the final shape of the Capital Program, it is vital that they keep everyday New Yorkers at the top of their agenda,” William Henderson, Executive Director of PCAC, said. We can’t risk not investing in the system as we’ve been down that road before.
So what happens next? Eventually, Albany will pick up the cause, and the debate may play itself out in familiar fashion. No one will propose traffic pricing, but debt will be on the table. And the MTA’s debt, as a new report by the Straphangers highlights, is a problem. The MTA itself is carrying more debt than 30 nations including war-torn Syria and the entirety of Chile. And yet underinvesting is on the table because, as Joan Byron of the Pratt Center said yesterday, “we have a governor who has demonstrated that he does not get how important the MTA is to the metro and regional economy.” That’s a scary thought indeed.
Think of it as the MTA’s version of Captain Planet. With their powers combined, can they convince Albany to act on the MTA’s 800-pound gorilla in the room — that unfunded $32 billion capital plan? That’s the question looming ahead of a Tuesday morning press conference that will see Jay Walder, Lee Sander and Peter Stangle share the stage. The three former MTA heads were originally set to appear with Richard Ravitch, but the guru of New York state politics has seemingly dropped out of the event.
The lobbying effort is the brainchild of the Empire State Transportation Alliance, and the three men will call upon Albany to fund the damn thing. “For nearly 40 years, the New York State Legislature has recognized that our transit system underpins our state and the $1.5 trillion economy of the New York metropolitan region. This year, a broad alliance of former MTA leaders and transit and environmental experts have come together to urge leaders in Albany to identify stable, dedicated revenue to support the plan,” ESTA staid in a statement. “Without sufficient funding to cover all five years of the plan, we will severely damage the MTA’s capacity to provide safe, reliable and modern transit service and put our region’s growth, vitality and quality of life at risk.”
For the MTA, a gathering of this magnitude — including the who’s who of contractor associations, environmental groups, rider advocacy organizations and union leaders — is a momentous occasion, but the agency would be hard pressed to talk much about it. The MTA leaders know that, as they run a state agency that operates at the whim of Gov. Cuomo, they can’t really lobby for something without the go-ahead from Cuomo’s office, and so far, Cuomo hasn’t waded into the fray over the capital plan. So why not have a bunch of former agency heads to do the dirty work?
It’s interesting to see Stengl, Sander and Walder take the reins here. Each are very well respected within the transportation community, but each had issues navigating the politics of the MTA. Stengl had troubles with the first Gov. Cuomo (but left after George Pataki won election) while Walder had issues with the second. Sander was bounced due, in part, to his lack of relationship with Gov. Paterson but had a vision for the agency. But leaving the MTA’s top job isn’t a sign of anything other than normalcy these days, and here they are.
I won’t be able to attend Tuesday’s press conference, but we will hear these leaders talk about “why funding the plan with new revenue is vital for the continued success of the greater metropolitan region.” New revenue, perhaps, is a code word for a push for the Move NY traffic pricing plan or another revenue-generating scheme that will require action from Albany. It’s getting harder to ignore the drum beat, and having former MTA heads free from the shackles of Albany and willing to talk will only boost the view that, sooner or later, the city will have to comes to terms with its transportation priorities and the way it plans to fund the next five, 10 or 15 years.
Here’s some news Gov. Cuomo isn’t rushing to announce: After a disastrous evening commute on Thursday, the MTA is warning some customers to expect more of the same on Friday morning. Following a manhole fire south of West 4th St. that damaged signal power cables on Thursday evening, Transit expected that a.m. service on the 8th Ave. A, C and E lines will “be impacted” in the morning. They’ve offered no other details, but if tonight was any indication, the chaos could spread to the 6th Ave. line too.
I sometimes hate to draw widespread conclusions from isolated incidents, but Thursday was tough. In the early evening, the MTA reported delays on all numbered lines, and at one point, the track-facing doors on the Shuttled opened at Times Square, as Eric Bienenfeld noted to me. In a way, Thursday was a prime example of what could happen if the next five-year capital plan is cut back or left unfunded.
And so while we can’t always draw an argument from bad days, we can view it as a warning and one that legislators should heed: Fund the five-year plan or this will become the norm. For anyone trying to get home tonight, it’s a scary thought indeed.
Over the last few weeks, the MTA’s proposed $32 billion capital plan has faced criticism from just about everywhere. Staten Islanders are not happy with it; the state’s Capital Program Review Board flat-out rejected it; and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is concerned about the ever-ticking debt bomb. Now we can add the influential Citizens Budget Commission to the list.
In a Policy Brief released yesterday (pdf), the CBC does not pull it punches. Citing “misplaced priorities,” the CBC calls the plan “misguided” and says that riders should not be asked to pay for a plan that doesn’t spend money on the right things. Essentially, the charge amounts to one of recklessness — the MTA has asked for an incredibly high sum of money without making the right case for the expenditures.
“The MTA is a core asset of the New York region’s economy, and funding its capital needs wisely should be a high priority,” CBC President Carol Kellermann said in a statement. “The public debate over the proposed MTA capital plan should focus on what the funds would achieve as well as how much funding is needed.”
The CBC’s critique can be boiled down to three salient points. First, the report alleges that the MTA is not making sufficient progress in achieving a state of good repair for aging and aged infrastructure. “Most of the facilities,” the CBC noted in a refrain we’ve heard before, “are not in a state of good repair.” To make matters worse — or at least, not better — the next five year plan will not close the gap and will, says the CBC, “leave many features of the mass transit and commuter rail systems, such as stations and less visible power stations and pumps, in need of repairs and renovations; the consequence will be less reliable and less safe service than the public needs.”
Second, the CBC is not impressed with the MTA’s plans to modernize the subway’s signal and communications systems. This should be a clear priority at this point as it’s one of the few ways, absent massive capital construction projects, that the MTA can expand service on preexisting subway lines, but it’s a tough sell politically as you can’t have a ribbon-cutting for some new signal system or CBTC. The CBC summarizes: “In the next five years work will begin on only two additional segments, leaving the vast majority of the system with outdated components for at least the next 20 years.”
Third, and perhaps most importantly, the CBC alleges that the MTA hasn’t properly made its case to the public. “The proposed plan allocates substantial sums, and implicitly commits even larger sums in the future, to new projects that expand the transit network without analyzing their benefits relative to other possibilities and without identifying their total cost.” In turn, the CBC states that the MTA does not have clear priorities in selecting projects and a “weak capacity” for implementing projects efficiently (which is probably being nice about it). The CBC wants to see explicit criteria for priority projects and evidence of long-term investments before anyone forks over money.
That final point is a key one as the MTA’s five-year plan includes requests for $1.5 billion for the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway and significant spends for the Penn Station and East Side Access projects. The Second Ave. Subway, in particular, has been problematic as the MTA has refused to release a full cost estimate for Phase 2. When the MTA first proposed the four-phase approach over ten years ago, Phase 2 was expected to cost approximately as much as Phase 1, but the MTA must refresh the EIS and engineering reports. Thus, the agency does not wish to give a final cost yet but insists that it needs the $1.5 billion to begin planning now and construction toward the end of the five-year plan. It’s a weird Catch-22 of this half-decade funding process but one that bears a closer look.
So here we are. No one seems to like the MTA’s capital plan, but it needs to happen in some form or another. How we get there remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the MTA should answer to these complaints once (if? whenever?) everyone in Albany gets serious about the next round of funding and spending plans.
Whenever the MTA’s five-year capital plan comes up for debate and discussion, some familiar proposals re-enter the public sphere. The Triboro RX circumferential line made headlines during last year’s mayoral campaigns while the idea of Utica Ave. or Nostrand Ave. extensions were bandied about amongst transit-watcher circles. Ultimately, the MTA unveiled a plan with only one new extension — Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway — and while many were sad to see their pet projects omitted, Staten Island expressed its displeasure with a sigh louder than normal.
Vincent Barone of the Staten Island Advance set the stage:
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority unveiled its $32 billion, five-year capital plan this week with no aim to fund either the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit (BRT), or West Shore Light Rail projects. Staten Islanders have rallied behind the two major plans over the years in order to create more public transportation options in booming Island areas.
Allen Cappelli, Staten Island’s MTA board member, was outraged by the exclusion of projects, calling the current budget a “betrayal” to Staten Islanders. “[The New York Wheel and Empire Outlets] are going to exacerbate transportation conditions on North Shore,” he said. “This is a continuation of the neglect of serious mass transportation needs on Staten Island.”
The West Shore Rail Line is in need of $5 million for an Alternative Analysis study, while the North Shore Bus Rapid Transit needs about $365 million in funding for construction to begin. The original MTA plan was to use Sandy recovery money to build the BRT line, but the proposal hit a wall last year when the MTA decided not to submit the project for federal funding.
On the one hand, considering the relatively modest pricetags, that these projects should be included is almost a no-brainer. The $370 million in total expenses would amount to approximately 1 percent of the proposed $32 billion total. On the other hand, I’m holding out hope for some sort of rail restoration along the North Shore line and am not totally disappointed this project won’t see the light of day quite yet. It could also come about through later joint efforts with DOT as part of Mayor de Blasio’s promised 20 new SBS routes. Why the West Shore Rail Line Alternative Analysis wasn’t included is a good question. We should also look at bring the Hudson Bergen Light Rail line into Staten Island as well.
What Staten Island is getting includes $300 million for brand new rolling stock for the Staten Island Railyway. While we don’t know full details, these new cars will be compatible with Staten Island’s new real-time arrival system. According to the MTA’s capital plan, “other SIR work includes mainline track replacement, radio system enhancement, and component repairs at various stations.” That’s not much of an investment, but it’s something about which borough officials care deeply.(It’s worth noting that SI will also get two new ferries as part of a federal grant for storm resiliency.)
The question is though why isn’t Staten Island getting more, and while I haven’t had many conversations about this with many people, I believe it’s a political matter driven by the fact that many prominent Staten Island officials do not embrace transit. I use State Senator Andrew Lanza as a frequent example and that’s not without reason (1, 2). When these State representatives use their platforms to advocate against incremental transit reforms and do not fight for state dollars that could be used to expand transit, the MTA doesn’t respond. They’re not in the business of always lobbying for new projects without political support and until someone on Staten Island starts arguing for a North Shore or West Shore reactivation (let alone a connection to the subway via the harbor or the Narrows), the MTA won’t allocate money on its own.
This discussion also implicates the ferries in a tangential way. As part of a mid-1990s campaign promise, Rudy Giuliani dropped any fare on the ferries, and they are now a subsidized means of transit for everyone. I continually question why the ferries should be free; after all, people live on Staten Island knowing that the connections to Manhattan job centers are a boat ride away, and others who live in areas of the city isolated from the subway system sometimes have to pay multiple fares. Lately, the Borough President asked the city’s Independent Budget Office to assess a tourist-only fare, and the IBO determined that such a fare could generate as much as $67 million over 15 years [pdf]. Imagine what a marginal fare for everyone could do.
Maybe it’s time to have those difficult conversations with Staten Islanders. Maybe it’s time for those who want transit upgrades to propose ways to fund them. It’s not always easy to realize, but nothing comes to New Yorkers for free, especially in the transit realm. I don’t have the answers; I have only some thoughts. But to me, it starts with the elected officials. As long as the Senator Lanzas of the world are getting reelected, we’ll never have conversations regarding funding, fare policies and transit expansion that Staten Island needs and deserves.