Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has a funny relationship with the MTA. When the agency has good news that’s bound to grab headlines — such as fancy renderings of the next generation of rolling stock — he’s front and center with a press conference at the Transit Museum, his new favorite spot. When the news is bad, it’s everyone else’s responsibility to get the word out. That is, of course, his prerogative as the state’s chief executive, but that dynamic was on display again on Monday during Cuomo’s unveiling of the new designs.
The event was a sudden one, announced early on Monday morning during a period of the summer usually devoid of transit news. And once we drill down on the news, the developments came via the renderings rather than the initiatives. The announcement, a welcome one to be sure, served as a follow-up to both previous Cuomo news and long-standing MTA initiatives. Yet, for all of my skepticism, Cuomo deserves some credit as he’s pushing the MTA to move faster than the agency is used to moving, and riders should benefit.
Monday’s press conference focused around Cuomo’s plan to close 31 stations for speedier renovation work and the MTA’s plan to bring open gangway rolling stock to the New York City subway. The news isn’t new, but the renderings are. And they admittedly look good.
These projects are part of the $27 billion five-year capital plan on which Cuomo finally focused earlier this year, and he’s taking his valedictory lap while the going is good. “New York deserves a world-class transportation network, worthy of its role as the heartbeat of the 21st century economy,” he said. “The MTA design team developed a bold and visionary reimagining of the quintessential commuter experience, incorporating best practices from global transit systems, and focusing on our core mission to renew, enhance and expand. We are going to do more than renovate; we are bringing subway stations to a higher standard than ever before, and the new vision for subway cars will increase capacity and reduce overcrowding and delays.”
That last element is key. At a time when upgrading the signal system to accommodate more trains will take years or decades, changing the design of the New York City subway cars to bring it in line with international standards can improve capacity by around 8-10 percent without much additional expense. After all, rolling stock replacement is part of the MTA’s regular investment cycle, and adding open gangways represents a negligible cost in excess of the money spent on a new cars.
Monday’s announcement came couched in some interesting language. The MTA has the option to add “up to 750” cars with open gangways, but the plans are still as they were a few months ago. As part of the upcoming R-211 contract, the agency is going to order a 10-car pilot to test open gangways. If this test is successful, the agency can order an additional 740 cars with open gangways. This was the plan in January, and it remains the plan now. But the bidding will start soon as Cuomo puts pressure on the agency to speed up the procurement process. Still, it’s my understanding the first open gangways won’t arrive for 40 months or so, and if the contract is awarded before the end of the year, it’ll still be 2020 before the prototypes arrive.
Cuomo deserves praise for moving this process along, but the MTA has been working on this for years. It’s an important distinction to make. Meanwhile, in addition to open gangways, the cars will come with improved grab bars and doorways that are 58 inches wide instead of 50 inches. The colors incorporate the state’s blue and gold motif and align with the buses Cuomo has been pushing. Flip seats (that likely will always remain down), dynamic video screens and USB charging ports (always) are features of the new cars as well. The properly-hued subway bullets are making their triumphant return as well, a welcome part of the new design. If anything, now, the New York City subways will be aligned with international design standards, and the renderings produced by Antenna, the company behind the WMATA’ss 7000 series rolling stock and the LinkNYC kiosks, did a great job.
Meanwhile, we have a better idea of the new station design as well. As part of the MTA’s effort to speed up work, the agency is implementing a design-build process at 31 stations that were, not coincidentally, up for renovation. The new look includes better lighting and wayfinding, countdown clocks (somehow on the B division), new floor materials and, of course, USB charging ports. Everything in 2016 must have USB charging ports. The first three stations to get this treatment are Prospect Ave., Bay Ridge Ave. and 53rd St. along the BMT’s 4th Ave. line and work should begin either by the end of the year or early in 2017. As the renderings show, it’s a modern look for the MTA’s subway stations which are brighter and seemingly friendlier.
This is all good news and should be accepted as good news. It’s easy to focus on the MTA’s big picture problems, but at the same time, constant investment in the state of good repair of the infrastructure involves well designed rolling stock and technologically advanced stations. The open gangways help with capacity and delays caused by crowded trains; the stations create a more welcoming environment. The MTA needs to continue to grow and invest in the long-term less sexy projects that will truly expand transit, but if Cuomo wants to focus on the MTA, let’s let him.
As a closing note, it was interesting to hear the Governor speak about his renewed emphasis on transit. He told one story about his family. ““My daughters were home for the weekend,” he said. “They came up to Westchester, and I got the lecture about the MTA.” Trains were too crowded, and they wanted dad, who’s in charge of the MTA, to do something about it. But there’s another side to this as well, as Dana Rubinstein related. When pressed on the renewed focus on transit investment, he responded with a tautology. There is a new emphasis on the MTA “because there is a new emphasis on the MTA.” And that’s where we are right now.
In some reality, the MTA’s recent five-year capital began nearly 16 months ago at the start of 2015, and we are well into year two of the work. In our reality, Gov. Andrew Cuomo still hasn’t really funded the plan, and the five-year spending proposal hasn’t gone through the state approval process. Yet, on Wednesday, for the third time in two years, the MTA released a draft of the capital program. The agency thinks this one will finally garner Capital Program Review Board sign-off, and in it are plans to begin in earnest Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway.
This element of the capital plan — the northern extension of the Second Ave. Subway to Lexington and East 125th St. — is not without controversy. In August of 2014, when the MTA first put forward this five-year plan, the funding request for Phase 2 was $1.5 billion, and the MTA expected to begin construction in 2019. As Cuomo dragged his feet, though, the MTA had to revise the plan, and an October 2015 version included only $500 million for preliminary design and engineering work. The MTA said it couldn’t start work before the end of 2019 and planned to request the balance in the 2020-2024 plan. East Harlem pols were not happy, and politicians began a push to examine construction timelines (albeit one that came far too late).
When the state finally approved a budget a few weeks ago, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was back on the table, and the MTA has released the third version of their 2015-2019 capital plan that reflects this expenditure (pdf). All told, the MTA will spend around $1.035 billion on Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, with approximately $500 million coming from the feds. The plan is a bit of a hedge as heavy construction won’t begin until 2019, and if the MTA misses that deadline, as the agency expected to six months ago, they can roll the money over into 2020 while lining up the rest of the funding to begin work on that phase.
If all goes according to plan, the MTA will spend around $535 million on environmental, design, and real estate and project support in order to begin utility relocation work for Phase 2. The new plan also, in the MTA’s words, “reserves $500 million to support progressing major construction activities.” This is a promise to maybe kinda sorta begin real work on Phase 2 by the end of 2019 with an eye toward ramping up construction activity through funds available in the next capital plan. (What happens if the next capital plan takes years to approve is an open question.) While the proposal allows for modest expenditures spread out over four calendar years, the reserve is all bucketed for 2019. Do you think major construction will start by then? I’m not convinced.
Meanwhile, at Wednesday’s board meeting, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast echoed MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu’s off-the-cuff cost estimate from early November. The agency still expects Phase 2 to cost between $5-$6 billion, an exceedingly hight amount even in New York City. Most of the costs seem tied up in the 125th St. station which involves tunneling underneath Metro-North tracks and the Lexington Ave. Subway while building a deep-bore subway stop that’s up to modern safety codes. It’s still not yet clear if the MTA intends to utilize pre-existing tunnel segments north of 96th St. that may be too close to the surface to support the MTA’s current approach to subway construction. We’ll know definitively one way or another within the next year or so.
And thus, this never-ending saga inches closer to another phase. One day, we may even have a full length Second Ave. Subway, but as the tenth anniversary of construction on Phase 1 nears, it’s still going to be a while.
For the MTA’s $27 billion five-year capital plan that is now entering its 16th month of being late, the budget allocates a whopping $1 billion in actual cash with some vague references to the overall $27 billion five-year program. Cuomo of course played this up as though the entire thing has been funded, but we are no closer to understanding how this money will be realized than we were yesterday, last week, last month or last year. Unless momentum behind a push for the Move New York plan materializes, it will be more debt or (or is that “and”?) bust for the MTA. (New York also committed to spend an equal amount on upstate roads despite a far worse return on its investment. At least the Erie County executive was happy. After all, New York City residents are the ones paying for his roads, but I digress.)
In response to this magnanimous nothing from his boss, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast released a statement of praise, calling the budget appropriations a “monumental win for the people of New York.” It’s not really a win except that it paves the way for the MTA to gain Capital Program Review Board approval and start spending money it doesn’t really have for projects it badly needs. He continued:
“This $27 billion agreement marks the largest investment ever made in the MTA. It is an important victory not only for New York City and its suburbs but for all the communities across New York State. The plan will enable the MTA to maintain critical infrastructure while renewing, enhancing and expanding our system to meet the ridership and growth demands of the future and improving the current experience for the millions who critically rely on our system each day.
The Governor has once again assured a year-to-year increase in state operating assistance for the transit system and brought us a significant increase in support for the MTA, including a commitment to the second phase of the extension of Second Avenue Subway to East Harlem, and billions of dollars for the essential work of keeping the transit system safe and reliable…The MTA has been hard at work preparing projects supported by the new Capital Program and will now submit a revised plan to our Board as well as to the State’s Capital Program Review Board.”
Most of this is what we call pure puffery, but the last sentence is key. The MTA is going to submit their third version of the capital plan — and it will actually restore an important item cut from the last iteration. That’s right; Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is back, baby.
The MTA has gotten a commitment of an additional $1 billion from the state for this phase, but the investment nods at the bifurcated nature of the plan. The current budget will allocate an additional $500 million to Phase 2 so that the MTA will have $1 billion for Phase 2 under the 2015-2019 plan. This should be enough to complete all studies and design refreshes necessary and begin utility reconstruction by the end of 2019 which MTA sources have indicated is an aggressive but doable timeframe. The remaining $443 million will be a part of the state contributions to the 2020-2024 capital plan in recognition of the reality that Phase 2 won’t be completed until the mid-2020s.
After significant blowback when the MTA essentially moved $1 billion of Phase 2 funding to the 2020-2024 plan by eliminating from the 2015-2019 plan, Assembly members Rodriguez and Wright (that is, Robert and Keith and not Alex and David, as baseball fans would hope) were instrumental in securing these funds for the MTA and their constituents. They issued a statement this afternoon. “The restoration of significant funding for the Second Phase of the Second Avenue Subway represents a huge victory for the residents of East Harlem,” Rodriguez said.
So what comes next? The fight for an actual source of dollars for the capital plan will continue; the MTA will submit a revised plan and hope to avoid debt; and Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is exceedingly likely to become a reality within the next decade. It all sounds good, but next week, we’ll take a look at what Paris has planned to open before 2030. And then we can wonder how New York City went so far off the rails. In the meantime, tonight is but one step in a continuing saga.
As the legislative stalemate over the MTA’s current five-year capital plan nears the start of its 16th month since spending for the plan was due to begin, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly had the audacity to claim an unapproved plan was in line with business as usual for the MTA. He has cited to the 2010-2014 plan as proof, but he has failed to draw an apt analogy. With the world mired in a recession, the MTA’s previous five-year plan was approved in two parts with the state’s Capital Program Review Board authorizing two years and then three for a full five-year plan. This time around, the CPRB has even had the chance to weigh in on the current five-year plan, and even as negotiations around certain projects continue, Cuomo has failed to deliver on repeated promises to fund the plan.
A few weeks ago, shortly after MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast was summoned to Albany to talk MTA finances, I explored how Cuomo’s MTA funding reality have failed to live up to his promises, and now, we learn the bad news: If the MTA capital plan is not approved by the end of June, the agency will not be able to access money to pay contractors for new projects. This deadline does not affect in-progress projects where the money has already been allocated (such as the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway), but without approval key initiatives, including future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, will be delayed further. In fact, one of the reasons why the MTA’s plan to replace the MetroCard has come to a near-stop is due to the fact that the agency cannot yet access funds for the project.
Prendergast told reporters of this deadline during last week’s MTA Board meetings, and the visibly-annoyed MTA head couldn’t put a positive spin on his boss’ inaction, the longest such delay in approval of funding in MTA history. “June 30th of this year,” he said. “That’s when we run out of money [and] can’t make new awards for projects that are in the 15-19 plan. For prior-approved plans, where we have money, we can make those awards, but for new plans, we can’t make those awards.”
The problem, as I’ve detailed, is that Cuomo’s current budget proposal doesn’t include any real commitments to MTA funding. He wants the agency to tap out its essentially limitless ability to fund through borrowing before ponying up any dollars. It’s an IOU, and in response, the Riders Alliance attempted to pay for subway rides with IOUs as well. It didn’t work, and Cuomo’s plan shouldn’t be allowed to stand.
To put an additional bow on this present, after months of listening to upstate complaints about parity, Cuomo’s budget includes billions in actual dollars for New York State DOT projects (in other words, roads), and the parity argument falls apart under any sort of scrutiny. As the Riders Alliance recently detailed in a report, the state is promising over $5 billion more to roads while the MTA regions are expected to pick up $11 billion in capital funding. Upstate municipalities with pending DOT projects aren’t kicking in any money at all, and on paper at least, New York is funding 59 percent of of DOT’s five-year plan with direct contributions while Cuomo has pledged to fund only 31 percent of the MTA’s five-year program.
“The conventional wisdom says that the MTA is getting more state money than roads and bridges, but a basic review of the budget shows that the opposite is true,” John Raskin, the Executive Director of the Riders Alliance, said in a statement. “Governor Cuomo is proposing to put real cash into highways and roads and bridges, but the MTA is just getting an IOU and a promise to revisit the issue sometime down the line. Public transit is literally bursting at the seams, and delays are skyrocketing, but Governor Cuomo is still playing games instead of actually putting in the money that would address the problem.”
The state legislature is expected to pass some budget measure by the end of this week, and the MTA’s financial picture will come into focus. Even with some renewed attention to a tolling/congesting pricing plan, the outcome of this week’s discussion won’t be satisfying for the MTA and its millions of customers, and the game of chicken Cuomo is playing with subway funding is costly for everyone involved. It raises the issue of whether New York City should have more control over its subway system, but the funding obligations that come with such a move are steep. Where we go from here should echo throughout the next years and decades, but I’m not sure anyone should hold his or her breath over a positive outcome this late in the game.
When it comes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and transportation funding, I’m not buying what he’s selling, and now, with details finally emerging three months after he announced a pledge to fund the MTA’s still-unapproved 2015-2019 capital plan, no one else is either. What started out as a promise to fund $8 or $10 billion of the plan via state sources has turned into a business-as-usual approach to the capital budget. Most of the state financing will come via debt, and it will fall on the shoulders of the riders through increases in debt service obligations that will eventually be a leading driver of future fare hikes. It’s not newfangled support from Gov. Cuomo and, coupled with his recent giveaway to New York drivers, it’s a far cry from the parity upstate politicians spent the fall whining about.
For weeks, as Cuomo conducted his infrastructure tour of New York State, pledging to see through lots of pretty projects without funding behind them, whispers of debt filled the air, and when he spoke at the Transit Museum on Friday, Cuomo even mentioned the dreaded d-word as the likely driver behind state contributions to the MTA’s capital plan. “Part of it is debt. Part of it is revenue,” he said to reporters, about state contributions to the MTA.
On Thursday, City & State reported that the state is essentially kicking the can down the road on funding. As Jon Lentz detailed, the state’s budget documents promise funding “only when the MTA’s capital resources have been spent down,” and budget-watchers don’t like this language.
“He’s not really going to add any money to the MTA,” Carol Kellermann, head of the Citizens Budget Commission, said. “Apparently it’s really just that the MTA is going to borrow the money, which doesn’t surprise me, because it’s what I thought all along. There was some conveyance of the idea that the state was going to contribute money to the MTA capital plan, which probably turns out not to be the case.”
The tireless Dana Rubinstein had more on Cuomo’s kinda, sorta rolling back his funding commitments:
Cuomo punts, according to Chuck Brecher, the co-director of research at the Citizens Budget Commission. “We were looking to the budget as being the time and the place where they would indicate how they’re going to pay for the commitment to do the $8-plus billion in the capital plan,” said Brecher. “The approach they’ve taken is to say they want to stall.”
The governor’s office had no immediate comment…Last year, the state appropriated $1 billion for the plan. So, now, the state owes $7.3 billion, according to Brecher. The state is only committing to hand over the rest of that money after the MTA has spent all of its contributions from the city and federal government. “What they’re saying is we promise to give you the rest of the $7.3 billion and we’ll give it to you as the last dollar in the capital plan, after you’ve used up all the money you’ve promised,” he said…
“The plan is to have a plan, and in the meanwhile, to keep having budget surpluses!” said Nicole Gelinas, a transportation expert with the Manhattan Institute, via email. “Practically speaking, it means the MTA will have to do its borrowing up front, and that when and if we have a fiscal crisis, the state will have to come up with a new emergency revenue, a la the 2009 payroll tax, to avoid draconian service cuts,” she added. “They are stretching a five-year capital program well beyond the six-year budget outlook, meaning, officially or unofficially, debt.”
In other words, once the MTA is no longer able to borrow a single dollar more, the state will step in. That’s a terrible plan and one that will surely lead to some combination of significantly higher fares or worse service. In fact, as Charles Komanoff wrote earlier this week, fares could increase by as much as 12 percent simply to fund new debt service obligations, and that figure is an additional 12 percent on top of the MTA’s regularly scheduled biennial fare hikes. Instead of some sort of equitable funding solution — such as Move New York’s fair tolling and traffic pricing plan — Gov. Cuomo has come up with nothing and is taking a lot of credit for it. It’s a veritable house of cards, and the wind is starting to blow.
Meanwhile, Cuomo has also pledged $22 billion to upstate roads, and a significant portion of that will be direct state contributions. When you consider as well that Cuomo is freezing New York’s already-low per-mileage Thruway tolls at current levels for the foreseeable future, the state’s current funding mix — including imposition of debt obligations on relevant agencies — heavily favors roads and drivers over rail lines and their passengers. Is this what Cuomo meant last week when he stressed the need to encourage transit use, especially in downstate areas? Color me discouraged.
When Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced $8 billion in state funding for the MTA’s capital plan a few months ago, the proclamation came with absolutely no details, and a follow-up agreement between the city and state to end their feud and fund the capital plan similarly contained no details. We had no idea how the state would generate the $8 billion in new funding Cuomo had pledged to the MTA, and in the intervening months, no additional details have emerged.
Will the money come from congestion pricing? (Unlikely.) Dedicated revenue sources? (I wouldn’t count on it.) Bonding? (Probably.) Either way, without tying the money into a source, Cuomo seemed to be promising a lot of dollars for downstate interests, and that, despite the economic realities of New York State, did not sit well with everyone else. Now the upstaters want their share. Is it a fair share or is just a money grab?
Here’s the story from Binghamton’s Press & Sun Bulletin:
New York will pay $8 billion over the next five years to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, but upstate should have its own funding stream to fix roads and bridges, leaders testified Thursday.
Monroe County Executive Maggie Brooks and county leaders urged lawmakers to create a similar fund that would put the rest of the state on par with the downstate region for infrastructure upgrades. “Upstate residents deserve parity to this downstate investment so that all New Yorkers benefit equitably,” Brooks told the Assembly Transportation Committee headed by Assemblyman David Gantt, D-Rochester.
Brooks, who is president of the state Association of Counties, said the state Department of Transportation has yet to release its five-year capital plan for road and bridge repair, leaving municipalities unsure what projects will get funded…For his part, Cuomo has vowed to get more infrastructure funding for upstate after the MTA deal was crafted between New York City and the state on Oct. 10.
The MTA, which provides transit services to the city and its suburbs, including the Hudson Valley, had a $9.8 billion funding gap for its five-year, $32 billion capital plan. The state will pick up the bulk of the tab, with the city and MTA funding the rest. Cuomo agreed that more infrastructure spending is needed in upstate. The concerns from Brooks and other leaders follow similar calls in recent months from upstate officials over the need to infuse cash into the upstate infrastructure. “They’re right,” Cuomo told reporters Nov. 18 in Rochester. “We always fund transportation needs all around the state. We need to fund them downstate, and we need to fund them upstate. There’s no doubt about that.”
This is a prime example of what happens when you promise money without identifying a funding source: Everyone wants a piece of the bottomless pie. With a rationalized transit funding policy, tied into revenue-generating schemes that promote transit and sensible transportation policies, it’s harder for everyone else to stick their hands in the state-sponsored cookie jar. That’s on Cuomo.
Anyway, here’s the question I pose to you: We can’t be surprised by the upstate request, but what does it mean to give them “parity,” as Brooks has requested? An $8 billion expenditure on upstate infrastructure would equate to something along the lines of $30 billion within NYC based on economic strength and impact on the state on the whole. (Tangentially, should we also consider the new Tappan Bridge an upstate project?) A policy of investing heavily in roads may be good in the short-term for upstate’s struggling economy but where does that leave New York on the whole? Ultimately, it should drive Cuomo to come up with a rational transit spending and funding program. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.
When the MTA released its revised capital plan earlier this fall, a few tidbits caught my eye. Although I mentioned them via the Second Ave. Sagas Twitter account, I failed to write the follow-up posts. So let’s revisit these items, starting today with the promise open gangways.
The concept of rolling stock with open gangways — articulated train sets — is one of those not-in-New York ideas we’ve come to know and warily examine over the years. The MTA has issued numerous excuses — tight curves, safety concerns that were valid 25 or 30 years ago — that seem to ring hollow, and every now and then, the agency nods at the idea of five-car sets with open walkways. The last serious consideration came in 2013 when the MTA’s 20-year needs document acknowledged the benefits of rolling stock with open gangways.
For the MTA, a design with open gangways is a long overdue need. It’s an easy way to boost subway capacity by, as we explored earlier this year, around 8-10 percent per subway train without increasing the frequency of a line, and as anyone who’s ridden the rails at rush hour lately can attest to, any capacity increase would help. So what’s the plan? It is, of course, a pilot.
According to the revised MTA 2015-2019 capital plan, the agency would purchase 10 open-gangway prototype cars with the $52.4 million expenditure allocated for 2016. For now, these prototypes are lumped in with the R-211 order that is supposed to start replacing the R46s over the next few years. It’s not yet clear where the MTA would run the open gangway prototype cars, how these cars would be designed or what the future holds for open gangways. When I last asked MTA officials about such a design, they told me that certain curves in Lower Manhattan may preclude running rolling stock with open gangways on all lines but that the MTA is committed to testing and, if possible, implementing a design with open gangways in the future.
Whenever this topic comes up, the usual complaints and critiques arise. In a Times article in 2013, the generation that remembers the Bad Old Days worried about crime. “Remember the time when we were in the high-crime era and gangs were roaming through the trains?” MTA Board member Andrew Albert said to Matt Flegenheimer. “Everybody loved the locked end doors.” Subway crime, of course, is at all-time lows and shows no signs of any meaningful increase. It ain’t the 1980s any longer.
Meanwhile, others have complained about disruptive buskers and the odors from homeless subway residents rendering half a train inhospitable rather than just one subway car. To this, I say it is New York exceptionalism at its finest, and we are not the special butterflies some would have us believe we are. These open gangways were standard operating procedure on the train lines I experienced in Berlin, Stockholm and Paris this past summer, and they worked great. Passengers could spread out through multiple subway cars, and the buskers moved on. Solving the homeless problem also shouldn’t prevent us from solving the more important capacity crunch, and as rolling stock comes up for replacement, eking out additional space via efficient design should be a priority.
So do we dare get our hopes up? Only 10 of the next 950 cars the MTA plans to order through the next capital plan will feature open gangways, and those that come online over the next few years will be expected to last another four or five decades. In other words, it’ll be a while before articulated train sets become standard. But this is a start, and a start is more than what we’ve had in the past.
When the MTA first published its 2015-2019 Capital Program toward the end of last year, it seemed that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway would soon see the light of day. Without pinpointing the total funding need for the stretch of the line that will run from 96th St. and 2nd Ave. to 125th St. and Lexington, the MTA had proposed a $1.5 billion line item that included project management and design, real estate acquisition and initial tunneling. The best laid plans would have seen initial tunneling being in 2019 with the remainder of Phase 2 funded in the 2020-2024 capital plan.
And then nothing happened. Governor Andrew Cuomo, the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA in New York State, didn’t make an effort to ensure the capital plan would be funded until mid-summer, and even then, he used the MTA to wage a petty political battle against the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio. By the time the two leaders set aside their childish fighting, nearly a year had elapsed between the MTA’s initial proposal and ultimate approval of the capital plan. For the MTA, this year meant uncertainty over funding and an inability to move forward on projects for which dollars were not guaranteed. Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was one of those casualties.
When the MTA unveiled its revised 2015-2019 Capital Program last week, funding for the Second Ave. Subway had taken a big hit. Instead of a $1.5 billion request, the agency now included just over $530 million — still a lofty sum and one that would cover the full costs for Phase 2 were we in, say, Paris or Madrid — but the $1 billion cut was the single biggest reduction in the revised plan. The $535 million would fund “environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation.” The MTA still plans to build Phase 2, but after a 13-month delay in capital funding approval, they claim to no longer have the time or resources available to spend $1.5 billion on the project before the end of 2019. With fewer dollars available, the MTA could make the decision to ask for more in four years.
And then everything hit the fan. Fallout was loud and angry with politicians accusing the agency of further delaying a massively delayed project, and the optics of withholding money for the Harlem-based sections after building the route through the Upper East Side looked even worse. If you take the MTA at its word, the agency still plans to build Phase 2 when it can, but the when looks a little more distant today than it did a year ago. Plus, New Yorkers aren’t keen on trusting the MTA. Can you blame them?
On Tuesday, local politicians struck back, and they were loud. Urging the MTA to just build the damn thing already, they condemned the agency for cutting the budget now. This was positive activism from politicians who were turning to a familiar whipping boy. In a letter to the MTA, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel expressed their displeasure with the situation. “We understand that the MTA will be moving forward with preliminary engineering and design, but it is disappointing to know that this project is once again being short-changed,” they wrote. “As you know, the long history of the Second Avenue Subway has involved repeated incidents of funding allocated and withdrawn, plans made and cancelled, ground-breakings celebrated and construction halted. We hope that this substantial funding cut does not signal the MTA’s lack of commitment to building phase 2 of the project.”
The two members of Congress posed a series of questions that need to be asked. They questioned the timetable for Phase 2 — something that is currently a real mystery. Noting that the MTA hasn’t yet requested federal dollars, a move that would commit the agency to build all of Phase 2 or refund a billion dollars to the feds, they asked when the agency plans to apply for New Starts money and enter into a full funding agreement. And importantly, they asked about the total expected cost, another mystery.
Yet, I couldn’t help but think that it was long overdue and years too late. Politicians tasked with oversight duties should have been asking these questions years ago to ensure that Phase 2 started once (or even before, as the Final Environmental Impact Statement contemplated) Phase 1 was completed. These questions need to be answered, but based on the MTA’s speed and competence (or potentially lack thereof), the MTA cannot start Phase 2 work much before 2020. As MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast said in a statement in response to Tuesday’s happenings, “[The $535 million] reflects the work we can realistically accomplish in the next four years given the regulatory and engineering constraints on heavy construction in a densely populated section of Manhattan.”
Meanwhile, the city too put some pressure on the MTA, and this too seemed oddly timed. Just last week, Polly Trottenberg, who is, thanks to Albany inaction on other potential appointees, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s only true representative on the MTA Board, praised the MTA’s capital plan with nary a peep about funding for the Second Ave. Subway. Yesterday, de Blasio’s words seemed to indicate that this cut was unexpected. “I do think it came as a surprise to many people that there was a change in the funding,” he said, “and I think that has to be reconsidered to make sure that everything is being done to move phase two as quickly as it can be done.”
The mayor, as you may recall, recently promised to contribute over $2.5 billion to the MTA’s capital program. Apparently, he wasn’t concerned enough with the details to follow up on how the city’s money will be spent and whether the MTA should be focusing on certain priorities. It is another move that shows the mayor’s lack of attention to transit matters, and it gave Cuomo, via Prendergast, the opportunity to ding de Blasio. In his statement, Prendergast highlighted how Trottenberg a week ago had called the new capital program a “very terrific capital plan.” What a mess.
At this controversy continues to boil, I hope New York City’s political representatives can learn a thing or two. First, paying attention to what the MTA is doing before it gets too late to do anything to change it is important. Imagine if Maloney and Rangel used their influence years ago to find out why Phase 2 planning hadn’t yet begun. Imagine if politicians were willing to hold the MTA’s feet to the fire on the outrageous costs associated with these capital projects. Imagine if de Blasio were to pay attention to transit spending priorities before they become news and not after. Imagine if the MTA were engaged in an aggressive effort to build out the Second Ave. Subway as fast as possible rather than as slow as possible.
The MTA knows it’s facing an uproar. As Prendergast said, “We have committed that if we can speed up the schedule to begin tunneling the East Harlem phase sooner, we will pursue a Capital Program amendment to do so. Governor Cuomo has made clear that he would like us to accelerate work on the Second Avenue Subway, and we are actively looking for ways to deliver the project faster.”
It is also not too late to right this wrong, but it will take considerable political effort and a lot of money. Phase 2 may now not finish until 2025 or beyond, and Phase 3 — the southern part — was originally supposed to take another nine years to complete. Maloney and Rangel should question that work as well. How much longer can we wait?
In the MTA’s original 2015-2019 Capital Plan, New York City seemed oddly underrepresented. The Second Ave. Subway had a big pot of money coming its way, but while the investment in Transit was steep, the benefits were behind the scenes. Such is the nature of a system in need of modernization, but in the revised 2015-2019 Capital Plan, certain improvements are more obvious.
One of those upgrades comes to us on the border of East New York and Brownsville, where the 3 train and the L train cross. As a remnant of history, the L train at Livonia Ave. and the 3 train at Junius St. cross, but there’s no transfer. You can think early-to-mid 1900s New York City politics for that quirk of the subway system, and this spot has long been one of the most obviously lacking transfer points. For years, East New York and Brownsville residents have clamored for the transfer, and early this year, politicians renewed their calls for the MTA to correct this oversight.
According to the capital plan documents, the transfer will be built out in 2018 and is part of the MTA’s accessibility efforts. The agency will spend $15 million on ADA upgrades and $30 million on an in-system transfer between the two stations. Perhaps a free out-of-system transfer would be cheaper, but $30 million is a rounding error in a $28 billion capital plan. It’s well worth the psychological impact of the work.
In another sense, though, even this minor move is an important one for the MTA and for the city. When was the last transit improvement geared toward East New York or Brownsville? As the city struggles to deal with the fallout from the decision to remove $1 billion from the funding request for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, the MTA is spending some money to upgrade transportation options in an area that often doesn’t see much attention. As Stephen Smith noted on Twitter, people are noticing:
Random people on the B38 are bonding with each other over the upcoming 3/L transfer.
— Market Urbanism (@MarketUrbanism) November 3, 2015
By investing in areas that don’t often see transit improvements, the MTA can send a message that transit matters. This move can get New Yorkers out of their cars and onto the subway. It can lead to an embrace of transit as something responsive to people’s needs and as something that can improve lives. These aren’t the busiest of stations, but it’s a need that has long been obvious. It’s also something that city residents shouldn’t have to fight this hard to see become a reality.
Across New York, there are a few other obvious transfer points that could yield benefits in the form of convenienced riders without a significant corresponding drop in revenue. I’m sure those who wish for a similarly obvious connection between the G and the J/M/Z in South Williamsburg are awfully jealous, and they have every reason to be. These minor but important upgrades simply shouldn’t take years to realize.
The MTA has a penchant for angering everyone. Whether it’s rush hour delays or crowded trains or fare increases, the agency is not high on New Yorkers’ lists of favorite things. But rare are the days when a line item in a budget draws as much ire as the MTA’s move to cut $1 billion in funding for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway did on Thursday. Even though the agency still plans to spend half a billion dollars on design prep and real estate acquisition before 2020, lingering doubts over the project’s future have pushed this move onto front pages around the city.
In a certain sense, the MTA is trying to be practical. That there is a gap of at least three years between the expected revenue service date for Phase 1 and the date they can start construction work on Phase 2 is an indictment of other issues with the MTA’s ability to execute on large problems and plan appropriately. The MTA should have ensured that design work for Phase 2 was wrapped by the time Phase 1 opens so that the transition to work on the next section would be seamless. But the opportunity has passed. Instead, the MTA will prep everything necessary to start work during the 2020-2024 Capital Program.
That is, if you take the agency’s word at face value, and few do. As the implication of the $1 billion reduction in spending sunk in on Thursday, no one was happy. Some noted that the MTA would no longer be applying for federal grants that may or may not be available in five years. Others worry that this is the beginning of the end of the Second Ave. Subway. After 100 years, we’ll get three stations and nothing else.
But a funny thing happened on the way to 125th Street: New Yorkers grew aware of the fact that the Second Ave. Subway was actually under construction and would actually open soon, and they want more. The statements on Thursday came fast and furious. House representatives Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel issued a joint statement bashing the decision, calling the MTA’s painfully slow construction timeline a “huge mistake.” The two said:
“While we are delighted that the state and city were able to reach an agreement to move the MTA’s Capital Plan forward, we are deeply concerned that roughly one-half of the reduction in the cost of plan is coming from the Second Avenue Subway. The current plan includes only $535 million for the Second Avenue Subway, most of which will be spent for preliminary engineering and design, as opposed to the $1.5 billion originally proposed. The MTA has also dropped its assumption that it would receive New Starts federal funding for the subway during this capital plan. New Yorkers have been promised a full build Second Avenue Subway since the 1920s. Based on the current schedule, one hundred years will have passed and we will still be waiting. This ‘go slow’ approach to the Second Avenue Subway is a huge mistake. ”
Meanwhile, other local politicians hopped on board. Robert Rodriguez, an Assembly representative from Harlem, condemned the move. “The MTA’s vote to drastically cut the 2nd Avenue Subway budget is shocking and indefensible,” he said. “For over a century, New Yorkers from the Lower East Side to Harlem have patiently waited for transit equality to become a reality.Yet, the MTA’s approved plan has dashed those hopes and told New Yorkers north of 96th Street that they don’t matter. This cannot stand. I call on the MTA to correct this mistake, demonstrate fairness and leadership and include funding in the capital plan to complete the Second Avenue Subway up to 125th Street.”
In comments to WNYC’s Kate Hinds, he called the move an “economic injustice.” Relying on Rodriguez’s statements and words from others, Hinds wrote a fantastic and comprehensive rundown of the move which included a look back at how the MTA used the Second Ave. Subway to court money from the mayor and then cut the planned funding once the mayor ponied up the money. It is a must-read on this subject.
In other coverage, The Times wrote about the near-universal condemnation of the funding move, and even the New York Post editorial board, hardly a bastion of bleeding-heart liberals, noted the class issue inherent in the MTA’s decision, even if they used to bash de Blasio again. How do you build a subway line through the Upper East Side while delaying the one through, as Rodriguez put it, “a lower-income community that certainly needs the access as much as the first phase”?
So what exactly can the MTA do here? They don’t have time to restructure the capital program again. In fact, the funding battle between the Mayor and the Governor which led to a delay in approval of the capital plan is a major reason why Phase 2 is being shifted from the 2015-2019 plan to the 2020-2024 plan. The MTA simply couldn’t execute because the agency didn’t know how much money it would have. What they can do is stress a firm commitment to building Phase 2, secure the promise of federal dollars and look to put shovels in the ground as soon as possible. It’s not a perfect solution, and it raises the question of why Phase 2 isn’t ready to start the day after Phase 1 wraps. But it may be the best they can do. Either way, this has become a major flashpoint issue, and there’s no easy way out.