Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019

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.

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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.

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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.

As the MTA gears up for a full-court press in Albany and City Hall concerning funding for its next five-year capital plan, reactions are coming in from across the spectrum. Few people are openly discussing congestion pricing, but one developer and MTA Board member spoke at the meeting yesterday advocating for East River bridge tolls. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that in the coming weeks and months. After all, the MTA doesn’t expect to resolve this $15 billion gap for another year or so.

I’ll have more on the specifics of the plan soon, but let’s round up the news and reactions in rapid response form.

The tireless Dana Rubinstein has two excellent pieces on the capital plan. They’re both worth a read. In one, she notes that the capital plan has appeared before the MTA Reinvention Commission had a chance to do much more than hold a bunch of hearings. They were supposed to come up with ideas to better fund and support transit in and around New York City, but I have been skeptical of the idea since the start.

In her other piece, Rubinstein tackles the thorny question of city funding. Direct contributions from City Hall to the MTA’s capital plan peaked during construction of the 7 line extension but still accounted for only around 10 percent of the total funding. In this five-year plan, the MTA expects very little from Mayor Bill de Blasio’s New York, but various factions in the agency want to change that. Can the MTA convince the city to fork over a whopping $125 million a year (up from $100 million) in direct contributions? I would hope so.

Staten Islanders are getting two new boats out of the feds for Sandy recovery and a brand new fleet of rolling stock from the Staten Island Railway. Still, advocates are not happy the next five-year plan does not include money for the North Shore BRT line or the West Shore light rail plan. More on that soon.

As part of a funding scheme, the MTA wants to use the payroll tax to bond out more capital money. This could lead to pressure on the operating budget (in the form of toll and fare increases and more debt obligations), but it is one way the MTA can stretch its existing revenue streams to beef up its capital spending.

That should give you enough to read and ponder for now.

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MTACapPlan Update (4:00 p.m.): The full proposal for the MTA’s 2015-2019 Capital Plan has been posted online in pdf form. You can read the glorious details as the MTA plans to spend over $30 billion on repairs and expansion work it and New York cannot afford to delay. I’m particularly intrigued by the gondola proposal on page 228 of the packet. Read on for my take on the whole thing.

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It takes a lot of gumption to ask for approval to spend $29 billion, but that’s what the MTA is poised to do on Wednesday. As the last item on the agenda for this week’s Board meeting, the MTA’s fiduciaries will vote to approve all $32 billion of the 2015-2019 capital plan, including a request to the state’s Capital Program Review Board to approve $29 billion of the plan. It is the MTA’s most costly plan in the 30+ year history of five-year spending programs and arguably one the agency needs to see approved the most. It should usher in a new discussion focusing around the question of just how we’re going to pay for all of this.

The two-page staff summary included as the final pages in this month’s Board books list out the planned expenditures, and although I’m still anticipating some fancy materials from the MTA detailing the spending plans, we have a glimpse of the various priorities to anticipate the full-court press. The MTA plans to spend over $23 billion on the so-called “core program” which includes rolling stock and vehicle purchases, PTC and CBTC installations, an indeterminate number of Select Bus Service routes, a contactless fare payment system, double-tracking the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma branch and, for some reason, Help Point intercoms at every subway station.

Another $5.5 billion will be spent on the sexier stuff. This request includes money to finish (ha ha) East Side Access, money to start Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway which would bring the line north to Lexington and 125th St., and money to add four Metro-North stations and bring the rail line into Penn Station. (That plan, called Penn Station Access is a minefield for New York State and City political interests.) The final $3.1 billion, which doesn’t require CPRB approval, will go toward the MTA’s bridges and includes money for open-road tolling at the Henry Hudson Bridge, a sign that the ongoing pilot has been a success.

So that’s the good. How about the bad? According to the MTA, they’ve managed to cobble together barely half of the money needed to fund this beast. They get a meager $657 million from the city, a few billion dollars from the feds, $6 billion in bonding, $3 billion in local funds, and $200 million from developers earmarked toward station improvement. All in, this leaves a funding gap of $15.2 billion, also the largest in MTA capital plan history.

To address this gap, the MTA proposes two solutions, and it is the closest the MTA comes to an ultimatum on requesting money from Albany:

“The MTA will work with its funding partners and stakeholders to developer proposals to fill this gap from the system’s many beneficiaries, including such option as dedicated revenue sources, partnerships that leverage private investment, additional appropriations from state, federal and local governmental partners, or new MTA debt…In the alternative, the gap can be overcome by reducing the size of the proposed programs, or increasing fares and tolls, or a combination of these options.

Fully funding the proposed Capital Program is critical to enabling the MTA to renew, enhance, and expand its to meet the mobility needs of the region. A reduced program will not keep pace with state of good repair renewal needs, adversely impacting the MTA’s ability to continue delivering safe and reliable service at current levels, and would compromise the ability to deliver enhancement and expansion projects that address the evolving needs of MTA customers and the region and to make the MTA system more resilient.”

“Dedicated revenue sources” might as well be an indirect call for Albany to debate some sort of congestion pricing plan or Sam Schwartz’s MOVE NY proposal, and I wonder if this extremely expensive and extremely underfunded five-year capital plan will finally push the state down this inevitable path of most resistance. If so, you won’t hear a peep about the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan until after Election Day, and even then, such a funding proposal won’t go down easy. It may, though, be the only one around a gaping hole that amounts to $15.2 billion and won’t get much smaller.

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Progress at Second Avenue Subway’s 86th St.caverns as of July 17, 2014. Photo: MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew

As the MTA gears up to release its proposal for its next five-year capital plan within the next few weeks, agency CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast went to Albany to preview the package. We learned that funding for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will be included in the request, and a variety of other plans that I’ve discussed over the eight years of this site’s life will slowly come to fruition. Still, funding questions remain, and Prendergast challenged Albany to do something about it.

Earlier on Thursday, I noted that Prendergast had requested $1.5 billion for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway. Phase 2 includes stations at 106th and 116th and Second Ave. and one at 125th St. and Lexington. The subway will use a mix of preexisting and new-build tunnels. As far as the money goes, the MTA’s plan for the next few years involves wrapping up Phase 1, refreshing the environmental impact study and working out designs for Phase 2, and beginning construction toward the end of the five-year period. I assume then that additional funding will come from the feds and from the next five-year plan that covers the years 2020-2024.

Even with a slower timeline — the full four-phase SAS was originally to be finished by 2020 — Phase 2 is the key to this project’s future. It connects with the Lexington Ave. line and Metro-North at 125th St. and provides the option for westward extensions to Manhattanville and northward to the Bronx. It provides the entire East Side will easier service to Times Square and Herald Square and will relieve crowding on the 4, 5 and 6. It can’t come soon enough.

But what else awaits? Pete Donohue provides the details. In addition to much-discussed safety enhancements for the MTA’s commuter rails, Donohue noted the following:

Prendergast said the plan, which isn’t finalized, would likely include approximately $20 billion for so-called “state of good repair” maintenance projects, like replacing tracks, signals and older subway trains. It is also projected to feature $5 billion for expansion projects, like the Second Ave. subway and the Long Island Rail Road link to Grand Central Terminal that is now being built. Further, Prendergast anticipated the plan would provide anywhere from $2 billion to $5 billion for rider enhancements, including countdown clocks on lettered subway lines and a swipe-less replacement of the MetroCard fare-payment system.

But what of the money? Prendergast and other MTA officials discussed this funding gap as well. The agency wants at least $27 billion, and although Albany could permit the MTA to issue more debt, sending the agency further into the red won’t help improve operations or financial security. “We can’t keep adding to our debt load. [It is] a formula for failure,” Prendergast noted. “The bottom line is, the capital program needs an infusion of new, sustainable funding, and we need your support in that regard.”

How that support manifests itself is up for debate. I’ve been expecting a tolling/congestion pricing plan to make a comeback simply because the state has few other avenues for revenue that could be directly tied into transit improvements while improving traffic flow throughout heavily congested areas of the city. MTA officials have also discussed contributions from the real estate interests that have piled up dollars throughout the city, and the MTA Reinvention Commission is, hopefully, looking at the issue as well.

The funding will remain a concern throughout the next few months, but I’m relieved to see the MTA focusing on moving the ball forward. They have momentum as new projects come online over the next few months and years and should maintain and build on that expertise. SAS Phase 2 is a must-have, and the sooner it starts the better. How we opt to pay for it will be very telling indeed.

OK, OK. Maybe there’s no Jeffrey Lebowski to ask for money, but New York State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli can’t seem to find around $12 billion for the MTA’s next capital plan. This is hardly a breaking piece of news for anyone who’s watched the recent politicking behind the MTA’s looming need to present a new five-year spending plan, but DiNapoli’s report drives home the fact that the MTA has to spend a lot of money it doesn’t have to keep our trains and buses running smoothly.

“Millions of New Yorkers rely on the MTA transit system and while it is in far better condition than it was 30 years ago, much more needs to be done,” DiNapoli said in a statement. “The MTA has to find a way to finance improvements without putting the financial burden on riders. This can be achieved only by working closely with the federal government, New York state and New York City to develop a long-term financing program and by using resources effectively and efficiently. Otherwise, needed repairs will be pushed even further into the future, and fares and tolls could rise even faster.”

DiNapoli’s main point isn’t necessarily that $12 billion is missing, but rather that $12 billion in funding will not materialize without sending the agency further into debt. In his short report, the New York State Comptroller analyzes the spending needs for the MTA and concludes, as we know, that the next capital plan isn’t a sexy one. Unless the MTA is aggressive in requesting funding for future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or work beyond the never-ending East Side Access plan, the capital program will fund much-needed signal and infrastructure upgrades and rolling stock purchases.

That’s not to say that these aren’t 100 percent necessary for the future healthy of New York City; they are. But when it comes to headlines, few New Yorkers are going to read about signal modernization and long delays caused by the work with any joy. This is stuff we never see even if our daily rides depend on it. Still, says DiNapoli, despite 30 years of investment, the system is not in a state of good repair and may never get there without considerably more investment.

As DiNapoli notes, this funding gap was a problem with the last five-year plan, and the MTA “solved” this problem by cutting expenditures and bonding out its obligations, thus adding more debt to the ledger. Debt service in 2018, notes the Comptroller, will be three times what it was in 2005. How long can this go on?

Ultimately, then, the issue isn’t that $12 billion is missing from the MTA’s capital budget. Rather, the issue is that the MTA will have to continue to go into debt to cover the funding gap. Can they add another round of debt to their finances without beginning to impact service? As debt counts against the operations budget, already riders pay for this debt as fares go up to cover operating obligations. DiNapoli doesn’t offer a stark picture for the future, but the meaning is there. Someone will pay for that $12 billion. Either the MTA doesn’t perform work or somehow it gets paid. Either way, without direct contributions from outside sources, riders alone will foot that bill.

A few updates on some stories I’ve been following:

MTA Reinvention Commission kicks off meetings

Last week, I shared my thoughts on the MTA Reinvention Commission and the august body’s need to focus on overhauling how the MTA works and how the agency does business. Today, the group kicked off their first set of meetings. (You can follow along via webcast.)

So far, the panel has spent a lot of time talking about affordable housing, and I’m growing worried that their focus is wrong. Reinventing the MTA requires asking hard questions and proposing top-to-bottom solutions for streamlining procurement, cutting extremely high capital costs and improving agency operations. It’s not about using the MTA to advance city policy goals. The MTA, I would argue, already does more than anything else for affordable housing than any one agency in the city, and the early framing on policy goals rather than MTA problems bodes ill for this Commission’s future, especially when a largely unfunded $30 billion capital plan looms. Affordable housing, for instance, is an outcome of sound transit policy, and without reinvention such that subways do not cost over $2 billion per mile, the policy goals will remain elusive.

On the bright side, Dana Rubinstein spoke with the Commission’s heads, and they expect results. “I don’t think any of these very busy people, any of these very important and smart people, would be involved in this if they didn’t think that these recommendations would be carried out,” Ray La Hood said to Rubinstein. Hopefully, the recommendations are expansive enough.

amNY: Where is New York’s better bus terminal?

The Port Authority Bus Terminal is low-hanging fruit, but it pays to remember just how sorry a spot it is. In an editorial today, amNew York urges the Port Authority to redevelop the bus terminal. “Midtown Manhattan urgently needs a brand-new, world-class bus station,” and with air rights value at an all-time high, the money to realize this dream — $500 million to $1 billion depending upon the scope of the project — could materialize.

G train shutdown looms as ferry questions remain

When Greenpoint’s India St. ferry stop collapsed earlier this year, everyone in the know knew that city had around four months to fix the dock before the summer shutdown of the G train for Sandy-related repairs. Now, with 11 days to go before the five-week outage, the ferry stop is not yet open, and no one knows when repairs will be complete. Brooklyn politicians are demanding answers, but concrete details are not forthcoming. This is one spot sorely in need of its ferry service and soon.

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Whenever I hear about another task force or panel or committee charged with some grand objective, I raise a skeptical eyebrow or two in its direction and hope for the best. Over the years, we’ve seen All Star panels come and go in a variety of capacities, and although some lead to change, improvements are incremental, not revolutionary. The MTA has received its fair share of recommendations — often at the urging of Richard Ravitch – and New York State and its leaders have hesitantly embraced measures designed to improve the agency’s operations and its financial security. Still, a panel is a panel is a panel.

A few weeks ago, right before I left for vacation, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the MTA announced the MTA Reinvention Commission. This thing clearly has lofty goals. Reinventing the MTA is a monstrous task that would do wonders for the future of New York City but involves a fair of amount of Robert Moses-esque consolidation of power that no one seems willing to take on. It would require challenging, instead of caving, to antiquated and entrenched labor, construction and general operations malaise. It would be hard.

So who’s up for the challenge? The Reinvention Commission has a high-falutin’ title and some bold-faced names attached to it, but when you start to peak under the hood, it may just be an attempt to thoughtfully plan out $30 billion in capital expenditures. That’s not a bad goal, per se, but it’s not going to reinvent much of anything. Ultimately, per Gov. Cuomo and the MTA, the group will “consider changes in customer expectations, commuting trends and extreme weather patterns as it develops future Capital Plans, the multibillion-dollar five-year programs of MTA investments to renew, improve and expand the transportation network.” Reports and recommendations will follow public meetings, and the spectacle will seem very, very familiar.

“The MTA has made incredible strides in rebuilding the network that makes New York grow and thrive, but we can never be satisfied with what we have done so far,” MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas F. Prendergast said in announcing the commission. “As we prepare the next Capital Plan to guide investment for the next five years, as well as future five year plans, we want experts, stakeholders and customers to offer their thoughts on how to make those investments work for decades to come.”

As far as personnel, Ray LaHood and Jane Garvey are co-chairing this behemoth, and it reads as an international and local who’s who. Academics from New York and officials from Toronto and London will chime in; Enrique Peñalosa will join Denise Richardson and Gene Russianoff. Kathryn Wylde and Robert Yaro will sit at the table as well, and only Richard Ravitch himself didn’t seem to get an invite.

So as the public meetings begin next week at MTA HQ, we can see what’s in store for the reinvention of the MTA. The first questions seem highly practical to those paying attention, but they’ll generate rote answers from the public at large who can attend meetings that run from 5:30-8 p.m. during the week or 12-1 p.m. on a weekday.

What challenges do you think the MTA needs to focus on as it develops its capital plans over the next century? How will population growth impact service? How can we overcome institutional, inter-governmental and jurisdictional barriers? How does the MTA keep pace with technology? Energy efficiency? Innovation? How can the MTA pay for all of this? And how can the MTA do this all more quickly than it does today?

These are obvious questions with hard answers, and while I’m not one to cheerlead when yet another panel is announced, if these professionals can answer even one of these questions, we may be better off after than we are today. It’s a tall order for an agency tasked with carting 6 million people around the New York City area everyday. How can they do it better? Let me count the ways.

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