Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
Over the weekend, Dan Rivoli of the Daily News wrote a feature on the MTA’s capital funding woes. For the transit literati, Rivoli’s piece travels no new ground, but it’s an important one for the debate and discussion over the MTA’s funding. While Gov. Cuomo shows no willingness to act before the legislative session ends in two weeks, Rivoli’s piece allows the MTA and its supporters to drive the conversation and keep the pressure on the governor to respond.
In the piece, Rivoli runs through the laundry list of projects the MTA can’t see through in the short- and long-term if the funding doesn’t materialize. Future phases of the Second Ave. Subway would be in jeopardy; rolling stock upgrades would be delayed; countdown clocks, a MetroCard replacement and other technological upgrades wouldn’t be funded. The money would go toward maintaining the current system and generally keeping the trains running without allowing the MTA to meet demands of high ridership and a growing city. “The status quo,” Allen Cappelli, an MTA board member, said to Rivoli, “is not good enough.”
Of course, Cappelli is right, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how right he is, capital funding or not. Right now, today — and especially during the weekend — the status quo isn’t good enough. The Daily News published Rivoli’s article on Saturday night, a few hours after I had gotten a text from my sister complaining about a 20-minute wait, with no announcement of a problem, for an N train on Saturday afternoon. It was also a few hours after I had to wait eight minutes for a 4 train at 7 p.m. and when headways were nearing 10 minutes on Brooklyn-bound 2 and 3 trains. It came after a week during which I saw similarly lengthy headways during peak-hour, mid-week service and at a time when it’s getting tougher to find seats on just about any train on a weekend.
The MTA has long maintained that service is good enough. But recall that they changed their own internal load guidelines back in 2010 so that a line isn’t eligible for more service until a quarter of a subway car’s off-peak passengers are standing. If we’re not there yet, we’re getting awfully close. These load guidelines, meanwhile, lead to longer waits and generally disgruntled riders.
As many of you know, I spent much of May traveling. I rode the U-Bahn and the S-Bahn in Berlin, the Tunnelbana in Stockholm, the CTA’s subways in Chicago and Boston’s T. The longest waits I’ve had for a train during mid-day, off-peak and peak hours have all been in New York City. If that’s the status quo the MTA is seeking enough money to maintain, the status quo is not good enough.
It’s hard to say what the best solution is. Any increase in service involves massive costs in that the MTA would need to hire more employees (already a source of lost cost cavings opportunities thanks to Cuomo’s utter capitulation to the TWU last year), buy more rolling stock, and upgrade the signal systems. Running more frequent four- or five-car sets during off-peak hours could solve some of the problems associated with headways but not necessarily address the issue of crowding. And of course, without action from Albany one way or another, the money to improve the not-good-enough status quo isn’t there.
The MTA certainly isn’t wine and roses. They bleed money on capital side at rates well above any comparably system or city throughout the world and haven’t shown much willingness in recent years to push for OPTO or ATO measures that would save oodles of money. The governor isn’t listening to its leaders or the people of New York who need investment in transit, and we’re stuck with this insufficient status quo. If you think too hard about the future, it’s not necessarily a pretty picture, and it’s one New York, Albany and the MTA may be rushing headlong toward.
As Denise Richardson, the head of the General Contractors Association said to the Daily News, “We’re violating one of those cardinal principles of long-term capital planning, which is to take a long-term view and not just be responding to the emergency priorities.” Waiting for the emergency will mean it’s already too late.
Gov. Nero is fiddling while Rome’s subway system is burning, but some New York City lawmakers aren’t taking it sitting down. Assembly representative James Brennan, architect of a plan to fund the MTA’s capital plan, has penned a letter to the Governor asking for resolution. Streetsblog posted the letter [pdf], and Brennan secured 24 other Assembly members and 10 State Senators as co-signers.
Brennan and Co. do not hold back. I’ll excerpt at length:
While this proposed statewide capital program represents a significant number, it still falls far short of what is generally acknowledged by the comptroller and other transportation experts as what is needed to keep New York’s most valuable economic asset—its unparalleled $1 trillion transit system—in a state of good repair and to continue modest expansion. It also must be considered in the context of its broader value to the economic health of its service regions with more than 14 million people, seven million workers and one that generates $1.4 trillion in GDP. Moreover, maintaining transit systems across the state contributes significantly to the upstate economy, given the number of suppliers and value-added services that exist in upstate New York to support the transit capital plans.
The MTA’s daily ridership of 8.6 million has reached a 65-year all time high and is putting significant strain on the system. The Lexington Avenue subway alone carries 1.3 million people a day, exceeding the ridership of San Francisco, Chicago and Boston combined. The pressure on the MTA’s physical assets to serve this increasing ridership is starting to show, with equipment and facility-related train delays on the rise. Between October 2013 and October 2014, nearly 25% of all subway trains were late. Metro-North and Long Island Rail Road have similarly struggled in managing their aging assets.
A fully-funded, five-year statewide capital plan will have far reaching impacts for the entire New York metropolitan and upstate regions, regardless of which borough or county one calls home. It will fund the purchase of modern buses, subway cars and commuter rail cars; the installation of computerized signals to increase capacity and reduce crowding; safety measures such as new subway track to prevent derailments and Positive Train Control to keep commuter rail passengers safe; and rider information like countdown clocks and “BusTime” technology that will help bring New York’s largely outdated system into the 21st Century and closer to on par with the world’s other leading cities.
Our transit agencies have experienced a decrease in federal, state, and local monies for far too long. If new sources of funding are not identified soon, agencies will be forced to raise fares and tolls or reduce service to pay for much-needed infrastructure needs—taking more money from the pockets of millions of daily riders, many of whom have no other transportation options. Viable funding options exist to support these initiatives, and the time is now to take action.
These lawmakers want action during the 2015 legislative session — which ends in less than a month. This is a direct challenge to Cuomo and the loudest one he’s received on the MTA’s capital plan so far. Will he act? I wouldn’t put money on it, but the pressure is mounting as days on the legislative calendar melt away.
When I was in Berlin last month, I stayed close to Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard that connects the former East Berlin to Museum Island and runs through the Brandenburg Gate where it becomes Strasse des 17. Juni as it passes through the Tiergarten. It’s a wide boulevard, and it’s the site of the German capital’s own transit megaproject. For €433 million, Berlin is building a 2.2-kilometer, 3-station U-Bahn extension that will finally join the U-5 with its U-55 progeny. Much like New York City, Berlin has had some issues delivering on-time projects, and this one is set to wrap in 2019. Still, the price is very, very right.
In New York City, meanwhile, the MTA maybe might open the 7 line extension — all $2.4 billion worth of it — before the end of the third quarter of 2015, but a City Council hearing today, MTA officials noted that the project could be delayed until October. The MTA is beginning dispatch training and teaching train operators how to run 7 trains from Times Square to 34th St., but the opening date won’t be announced for “several weeks,” according to MTA Capital Construction head Michael Horodniceanu. “We are in the final 50-yard sprint of this project,” he said.
The timeline is almost besides the point. The MTA is getting a little bit more track than Berlin and two fewer stations for nearly six times the cost. It’s stunningly disproportionate, and the 7 line isn’t alone. It’s not the most expensive subway project in the world on a per-mile basis because the 2nd Ave. Subway is. (The costs decrease a bit on a per-passenger basis, but the MTA’s cost scales are inexplicably high.) The MTA doesn’t talk much about these high costs and, tangentially, their inability to deliver anything on time, but well-positioned politicians have taken note of these issues.
On Monday, in an attempt to convince the City Council to up its contributions to the MTA’s underfunded capital plan, agency CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast faced a sometimes-provincial, sometimes-on point City Council. After clearly laying out the agency’s financial issues, Prendergast heard from some council members who demanded, without funding, as Ydanis Rodriguez did, a subway from 207th Street in Manhattan to Fordham or from those who don’t understand that capacity increases require investment in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars to implement CBTC. (Ryan Hutchins at Capital New York summed up the hearings.)
But Prendergast, hat in hand, also faced some witheringly accurate criticism regarding the MTA’s project management skills. A certain line of argument came from Corey Johnson, the council member who represents the Hudson Yards area. Noting the 7 line extension delays, Johnson said, “It doesn’t inspire confidence” in the MTA’s ability to pull off large-scale projects. He didn’t even discuss costs (as expected since costs can be esoteric and don’t make for great sound costs).
All in all though, this gets us to the MTA’s credibility gap. We know they can’t manage costs, and we’ve seen how they manage timelines. Every few weeks, the opening date for the 7 line extension has been pushed back so that, if revenue service begins in October, it will have been 22 months since Mayor Bloomberg’s ceremonial first ride. Meanwhile, the agency continues to insist the Second Ave. Subway will open in December of 2016, and the P.R. blowback if they miss that date will be tremendous.
Overall, the MTA’s problem is one that affects its allies too. I want to argue vociferously for the MTA Capital Plan, but the agency needs to get out in front of these cost and time management issues. They have to assuage critics and proponents alike that they (a) recognize the problem and (b) are working to resolve it. Why does the Second Ave. Subway cost orders of magnitude more than similar projects throughout the developed world? We don’t know, but the MTA should be working its collective tail off trying to lower costs for future phases. Instead, their funding request includes $1.5 billion for a Phase 2 build-out with an indeterminate budget. That does not, as Johnson said, inspire confidence.
There’s no doubt the MTA needs funding for the capital program. The alternative is bad service and high fares without technological advancements. But until the MTA can be efficient with its spending and deliver projects on time, politicians will have arrows in their quivers they can use at will. And can you really blame them?
So, did you miss me? There’s nothing like coming back with some bad news.
Since I’ve last had an opportunity to write up more than just the weekend service changes and a kitschy YouTube video on subway delays, I’ve been to Berlin, Stockholm, Chicago and Boston. I’ve ridden on a variety of transit systems, some better and more integrated than others, and I’ve had a whirlwind month of May as I prepare for my wedding in less than two weeks. I’ve missed a good amount of transit news too, and I’ll try to recap everything that’s happened in my absence, as well as provide some thoughts on those other systems I rode, over the next few days. Still, despite the three-week gap, the big story — the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan — may in fact be worse for the wear than it was before I left.
The sad reality is that, as June dawns and New York’s lawmakers gear up to end their 2015 legislative session, Albany is unlikely to address the gaping $14 billion hole in the MTA’s capital plan. This utter failure in leadership comes amidst a period of record subway ridership and clear signs that the MTA needs support to both keep pace with demand and continue to grow to meet future needs. So far, the details on this development are slim, but Kenneth Lovett, the Daily News’ Albany bureau chief had a brief report on this latest development.
New York state leaders are set to slam the brakes on the cash-strapped MTA’s push to fill a $14 billion hole in its $32 billion capital plan, the Daily News has learned. Several lawmakers say the political will is not there to address the issue before the legislative session ends later this month.
The Metropolitan Transportation Authority has been looking for help from state, federal and city governments as well as the private sector. The agency says failure to fully fund the 2015-2019 capital plan could imperil such projects as the next phase of the Second Ave. subway line construction, improvements to rails, switches and stations, and the purchase of new subway and commuter trains.
MTA officials vowed to continue to press for the needed funding. “This is the highest priority for the MTA and we’re going to continue pushing it with everyone we can,” agency spokesman Adam Lisberg said. MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast and other agency officials have been meeting regularly with Gov. Cuomo’s office and members of the Legislature to try to come up with a plan to fill the $14 billion gap. But they’ve been unable to get the issue placed on the front burner of the end-of-session agenda.
If the political will isn’t there now, it’s hard to see just when the will may arise. There’s been growing support for the Move New York fair tolling plan — support that hasn’t materialized since the now-disgraced Sheldon Silver torpedoed then-Mayor Bloomberg’s congestion pricing plan in a closed-door session in 2008. Plus, in April, James Brennan had seemingly prepared to put forward his own plan to fund the capital program through gas and income tax increases and more contributions to the city. (City contributions remain a very controversial issue as the MTA, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Comptroller Scott Stringer have been duking it out in recent weeks, but more on that in a day or two.) None of these efforts have led anywhere, and the city’s 8 million daily bus and subway riders will be left with an uncertain future.
For now, the MTA’s ongoing projects aren’t in jeopardy. Nearly all were funded under previous capital plans, and the agency can still tap PAYGO resources, albeit at higher interest rates than otherwise would be available if Albany were to act. But down the road, if Albany continues to fail to find the political will to address the imperative needs of a majority of New York City residents and workers, the MTA will have to turn to fare hikes, service cuts and scaled-back plans. That means no future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, no MetroCard replacement and no signal system upgrades while the Mayor can forget about his unfunded plan for a Utica Ave. subway.
It’s not surprising to hear Albany suffer from a lack of political will. Over the past few months, the state’s Assembly Speaker and Senate Majority Leader were arrested in corruption probes; the governor doesn’t show much outward support for transit; and the mayor has his security team drive him from the Upper East Side to Park Slope so he can go to the gym. While voting constituents need the subways, politicians who drive at a rate disproportionate to the electorate don’t understand the role the transit system plays in the city’s current and future success. So here we are in June, no closer to answer to a giant gap than we were in March, January or last November. The more things change indeed.
As far as bargaining chips the MTA can use for leverage in discussions over capital funding, the MTA’s options are few and far between. Short of kidnapping a bunch of customers and hiding them in the station shell at South 4th Street, MTA officials can only make noises about potential options. We heard about steep fare hikes yesterday, but those aren’t the only trump cards the agency can play. How about big-ticket capital projects?
During the same press conference at which he promised not to raise fares to delivery capital funding to the cash-strained MTA, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about what may need to go in the capital plan if funding doesn’t materialize, and of course, the namesake of my site came up. As part of the five-year spending plan, the MTA has requested $1.5 billion for the Second Ave. Subway. This line-item isn’t without controversy as the MTA hasn’t put a dollar figure on Phase 2 in over decade and wants a large sum for initial construction set to begin in the last year of the proposed five-year plan.
Still, the MTA knows the Second Ave. Subway won’t cost less than $1.5 billion, and the agency needs this money to keep momentum going. When Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens, the rest of the East Side will clamor for more segments of this line. It’s going to be that much of a game-changer for people that this phased approach is likely to be viewed as a mistake (if it already isn’t).
But as is the MTA’s wont with in-demand projects, the Second Ave. Subway makes for a potential liability and lever. In speaking on the impact of no funding solution earlier this week, Tom Prendergast said, as Capital New York reported, that future phases of the project could be “put on hold.” Isn’t that exactly what Sheldon Silver wanted when he forced the MTA to break one subway line into quarters?
The MTA can’t really afford not to build out more of the Second Ave. Subway. After all, phase two northward to Harlem and 125th St. is the part that will truly alleviate capacity constraints along the Lexington Ave. line. But threatening the future of the Second Ave. Subway is indeed something the MTA can do. Much like Prendergast or his underlings can discuss fare hikes, so too can the MTA boss talk about putting capital projects on hold. The more he discusses this in the context of Albany, the clearer it becomes that someone is responsible for holding up discussions surrounding badly-needed subway extension plans. I don’t love using the Second Ave. Subway as a bargaining chit, but if it forces legislators to the table as the days tick by, that’s better than the alternative.
Meanwhile, to show progress and perhaps to force a reckoning over this capital funding issue, the MTA released a series of photos from inside the Second Ave. Subway construction area. The agency maintains that the new stations will open for revenue service by the end of December of 2016. That gives the agency a full 20 months from today to realize this goal. The clock is ticking, and the delays at 34th St. and 11th Ave. along the 7 line loom large. Click through for some photos and check out the full set in this PDF presentation. Read More→
For all of its troubles, politically and economically, the MTA always has a trump card in its back pocket. If nothing happens with regards to the multi-billion-dollar hole in its capital plan, the agency can always look to fare revenue for a potential source of income. The agency’s leaders know they have a captive audience of New Yorkers who have to come to rely on the subway system now more than ever; they know they can jack up tolls; and they know it gets the attention of those in Albany when the dreaded phrase “fare hikes” comes up in the public discourse.
Earlier this week as yet more time passed with nothing happening with regards to the MTA’s 2015-2019 capital plan, agency officials started talking about fare hikes and boy did it start something in the halls of power. During committee meetings on Monday, MTA CEO Bob Foran confirmed what anyone in the know already knows: The MTA could close its capital funding gap by issuing more debt which would incur higher operating costs in the form of debt service which would be covered by … fare hikes.
“If we do not receive adequate funding to carry us through the next two years, we don’t have sufficient funds to keep the program going. At some point, the board may take action and the action that they really only can turn to would be one that addresses fares and tolls,” Foran said.
He explained that fare hikes to cover the gap could top 15% — a far cry from the current rate of around four percent every two years the MTA has implemented. Meanwhile, Foran wasn’t the only one crying foul. Jeffrey Kay noted similar concerns. “If they don’t do anything in the next two months, we have a freight train coming at us,” he said. “This is a real problem, and it’s not just going to impact the MTA. It’s going to impact the riders, it’s going to impact the workforce, it’s going to impact the construction unions, and it’s going to impact jobs…This is a real serious issue, and I don’t know what we can do in order to tell our partners that this is real.”
A day after the meetings — clearly on orders from Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office — MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast released a statement backtracking on his colleagues’ assertions. ““Yesterday’s mention of a potential 15 percent fare and toll increase,” Prendergast said on Tuesday, “was a hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question. No one has proposed we pay for our capital needs on the backs of our riders, and no one is considering it.”
He reiterated those sentiments on Wednesday following the MTA’s full board meeting. “We have never, ever closed the capital program on the backs of the fare payers. That’s unconscionable. That’s not our desire. That’s not what we’re going to do,” he promised, again sounding as though the governor’s office had turned the screws on him.
Prendergast doth protest too much as the truth is that few options are even on the table. James Brennan’s proposal hasn’t moved much in the two weeks since it was introduced, and more troubling is recent borough-based opposition to the Move New York plan. A group of Queens Democrats, including the usually transit-friendly Assembly rep Phillip Goldfeder and Borough President Melinda Katz, issued a statement in opposition to Move New York because they claim it is “unfair” to Queens and “lacks any promise of returns.” How they drew this conclusion is beyond me, but their statement is far more damaging to transit in New York City than these politicians realize.
Goldfeder tried to defend his position to me on Twitter. He claims to be concerned that Move New York doesn’t “address transit starved communities,” but without the dedicated revenue, the MTA doesn’t have the money to begin to implement improvements. It’s not even a Catch-22; it’s just common sense — something I usually expect from transit allies such as Goldfeder and Katz.
Overall, without Queens’ Democrats, Cuomo isn’t likely to embrace Move New York, and without Cuomo, Move New York — along the $1 billion that come with it — is dead in the water. Thus, we circle back to the MTA’s fare hikes. They’re a threat and a political cudgel the MTA can use to get attention, but they also shouldn’t be dismissed. Fare hikes are, after all, the only way the MTA can guarantee revenue for itself, and if New Yorkers don’t like the idea of a 15 percent hike, I know a bunch of politicians in Queens who deserve to bear the brunt of any complaints.
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.