Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
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.
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.
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.
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.
In bits and pieces this past summer, the MTA set forth its vision for New York City’s next twenty years. As the city continues to grow and modernize, the MTA and its subways, buses, commuter rail lines and bridges will continue to drive the city’s economy in more ways than one, and as part of an effort to meet demand and continue to provide reliable service, the agency has been arguing since July for twenty years of investment. We know it’s going to cost over $100 billion, and today, those costs and the plan crystallized as the MTA published the 140-page 20 Year Needs Assessment.
The document itself is an impressive feat of planning and an impressive feat of chutzpah too. The MTA is asking for $105 billion over the next twenty years — or approximately the same amount it has spent over the past 30 — without including any funding estimates for expansion projects. (Stephen Smith, now writing for Next City, has more on the cost comparisons.) So the $64,000 question is: What do you get for $105 billion?
What I find most interesting about the document is the way it divides MTA needs from the MTA wants. From the start, the agency is very forthcoming in its needs. It needs $105 billion to maintain current service levels, continue toward a state of good repair and prepare the system for more usage and 21st Century technology. It wants an unstated amount for future expansion which should include a 7 line station at 10th Ave. and 41st St., the rest of the Second Ave. Subway, capacity upgrades for the West Side IRT and the Queens Boulevard line, the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch (page 127!), and even articulated train sets. The price tags for these expansion efforts — the wants — haven’t been included because the MTA, I’ve been told, doesn’t consider them part of the necessary needs for maintenance of and upgrades to the existing system.
One line in particular struck a chord. After presenting a table that shows how the MTA will spend $105 billion with the bulk of that going toward New York City Transit projects, the MTA notes how they restrained themselves. “On a fully unconstrained basis,” the report reads, “the agencies’ needs are even greater than what is included in this assessment since more backlogged state of good repair needs exist than can be implemented.”
Mull that one over a bit. The MTA wants to spend $105 billion on repairs over the next twenty years after spending $100 billion since 1982 and could spend more due to a backlog of work. That is the legacy of neglect and a tell-tale sign that a system which still employs signal components from the 1930s. To defend the ask, the report explains, “The significant investments identified in this assessment, constrained as noted above, are prioritized according to such factors as age, condition, performance, safety and reliability in order to provide the greatest service benefits and maintenance savings to the operating budget.”
In no particular order, then, the MTA has identified a variety of areas for its needs. It needs to upgrade the signal system to implement communications-based train control while bringing online B Division countdown clocks and generally making more real-time information available to the public. It needs to upgrade the city’s bus network. It needs to bring more stations into compliance with the ADA. It needs to add more transfers to streamline operations. It needs to add system resiliency in the face of changing weather patterns.
As the money adds up, though, the MTA argues that many of these needs will result in operational savings. CBTC, for instance, can allow the MTA to run more trains at lower costs. Another need — the Metrocard replacement — can improve interagency relations and reduce fare collection costs. “The future promises the ability to use a single smart card or a cell phone with a smart chip — cell phones being nearly ubiquitous in the New York region — to ride any and all of the MTA region’s transportation systems, from NYC Transit’s subways and buses to the commuter railroads,” the assessment says. This new approach could offer many benefits to the MTA, including increasing bus speeds by shortening the boarding process, reducing labor and cash handling expenses, supporting inter-modal fare payments options and improving customer service through simplified and expanded fare payment options.”
Outside of these operational needs and system upgrades, though, the MTA has capital needs as well. Combining these expenditures results in $68 billion in projected New York City Transit investments. This total includes over $15 billion for signals, $9.4 billion for stations and $8.4 billion for cars. The rolling stock replacement plans for the next 20 years include retiring cars purchased in the early days of the capital plan in the 1980s. The MTA wants to stick with a 40-year replacement cycle, and as it struggles to maintain something resembling a state of good repair, components replaced seemingly recently will near the end of their life cycles.
But what of the fun stuff? We like to dream big, and the MTA here is dreaming practically (albeit expensively). One project set for the 2015-2019 capital plan involves rehabbing the 42nd St. shuttle terminal in Times Square, the only part of that station complex that hasn’t seen work in recent years. “Work will include renewal and reconfiguration of the Shuttle station, both to improve passenger circulation and to make the station ADA-accessible,” the MTA promises. “The existing Shuttle station has various deficiencies, including circuitous customer paths, platform edge gap fillers and other components that are not in good repair, and a general station appearance that does not match the standard achieved through the rest of the Times Square complex.” The Rockaway Line will have to be rebuilt before 2034 as well.
So now what about those wants? The wants are what I like. The wants are what will continue to make the city more accessible and less dependent on cars while permitting growth in areas that are underserved by transit. Those wants are up in the air. The Second Ave. Subway should wrap at least 100 years after it was first proposed, and articulated train sets would do wonders for crowding during peak-hour subway trips. But these are projects that need more dollars and more champions. The MTA has a $100 billion need; how can it find the money for the wants as well?
It’s full-court press time for the MTA’s next capital campaign. The agency unveiled its initial twenty-year assessment nearly two months ago, and last week, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast began to defend his upcoming $29 billion request. After Monday’s MTA Board committee meetings, we have a better sense of what the MTA wants, and over the next twenty years, the agency wants to spend in excess of $100 billion to keep everything running.
On its surface, $100 billion over twenty years is nearly inconceivable. This is $5 billion a year until I turn 50. This is $100 billion in capital funding. This is $100 billion with scant mentions of anything like future phases of the Second Ave. Subway, a rail connection for Staten Island or any other numerous subway expansion projects we dream up on these web pages. This is $100 billion.
But despite the humongous nature of the number, it’s not inconceivable that the MTA will spend this much, and they seem to have a plan. It’s not, as officials continue to note, a sexy plan. It involves a lot of behind-the-scenes work that will replace early 20th century technology in 100-year-old tunnels with mid-21st century technology that will allow Transit run more trains in crowded tunnels. It is, as MTA officials discussed during a board presentation on Monday, part of the natural cycle of components. Acquire or build comes first followed by operating and maintenance followed by renew and replace. Call it the subway circle of life, and it moves us all.
While the last few capital campaigns have been dominated by megaprojects — East Side Access, Fulton St., the 7 Line, the Second Ave. Subway and South Ferry — this expanded look forward at the next 20 years involves the ever-elusive state of good repair. The MTA, not assuming that the money will be there, has recognized the need to push toward that state of good repair while incorporating resiliency standards developed in the 11 months since Sandy hit to prepare the subway system for its next century.
The bulk of this work will include over $18 billion invested in the signal system, and the MTA has taken great pains to stress how large of an undertaking this project will be. Replacing signals require massive system shutdowns, and the way the MTA plans to stagger the work over the next few decades will make the recent FASTRACK treatment seem like minor annoyances. The end result will be greater capacity throughout the preexisting system, and that is likely to be the best way to meet increased subway demand.
As a benefit, the new signals will also lead to a robust countdown clock system, and here, we see another picture emerge. The public will get shiny new toys. The countdown clocks are possible because the MTA needs to know where trains are for safety and security reasons. The latter, in this case, drives the former. We’ll also get a contactless fare payment system sooner rather than later, circulation improvements at some key midtown stations, and eventually some shiny new rolling stock.
So what’s missing? Keeping in mind that we haven’t seen the MTA’s big wishlist yet, it’s worth noting that megaprojects have disappeared. The MTA is not yet proposing Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or any other rail expansion plans within the five boroughs. I expect to see funding for Penn Station Access arrive in the next set of documents to be released later this fall, but I’m bearish on the immediate future of the rest of the Second Ave. Subway. Prendergast wants it to be finished within the next 20 years; he said as much at the Crain’s New York Business breakfast last week. But so far, we’ve heard a lot about signals and not too much about system expansion.
One of less glamorous parts of the MTA Chair’s job involves begging. Every five years, the MTA begins anew planning for the next five-year capital plan, and the head of the agency must go, cap in hand, to various interest groups and politicians asking either for vocal support or money. The ask — nearly $30 billion — is high, but so are the stakes. It requires a cohesive and coherent argument for transit investment as well as a plan for all that money.
On Monday, at the annual Crain’s New York Business Breakfast, Tom Prendergast began his two-year tour in support of the next MTA capital plan. Although the 2015-2019 program has no clear outline yet and the big ticket investments remain a work in progress, Prendergast is already fighting for those dollars. Addressing a crowd of city business leaders, Prendergast defended the MTA’s recent progress and asked for help convincing Albany and the feds to invest in transit.
“We need all of you to become advocates for public transportation and there’s a very specific way you can help,” Prendergast said. “About this time next year, we’ll be bringing our next Capital Program — covering capital projects from 2015 to 2019 — to our Board. We expect it to be roughly the same size as our current Capital Program before the Sandy projects were added, and we’ll be working with our elected officials to identify funding sources for it. But we need your help, too. And when people ask me, ‘How can the business community be supportive?’, the answer is simple: Capital Program, Capital Program, Capital Program. I need your support to figure out how to make these critical investments in our region.”
Prendergast didn’t stop there, though, and his next request was nearly as important as his initial ask. “Our Capital Programs have come to rely more and more on borrowing, and we simply don’t want to keep adding to our debt load,” he said. “That’s why I need you to tell your Congressional and State representatives that the Program needs an infusion of new money this time.”
New money can take many forms, but direct grants are the most obvious. The MTA cannot afford to borrow or bond out more money unless the bonding is explicitly for and pegged to revenue-generating projects such as new subway lines. Borrowing to attain a state of good repair will simply add to to the unsustainable debt burden.
So what will the MTA get for its money? The agency is expected to request $29 billion for the next five years, and it won’t always be, as Prendergast repeatedly said, “sexy.” That isn’t, by the way, his phase. During his brief atop the MTA, Joe Lhota said nearly the same thing, and Prendergast has picked up that message. The MTA needs to rebuild parts of the system that are over 100 years old, including extensive parts of Contracts 1 and 2 of the IRT. Beyond that, the MTA wants to add countdown clocks and, more importantly, train tracking technology to the B Division, and the Metrocard replacement comes due in 2019, just sneaking into the next five-year plan.
As to the megaprojects, Prendergast hedged. He spoke about the need to wrap up East Side Access and Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway, and he mentioned that he hopes to see all of the Second Ave. line become a reality before the 100th anniversary of the first bond issue. That’s not, however, until 2036. When pressed by reporters after his talk, he admitted that Phase 2 will be examined for possible funding. I’m holding out hope it will be included. It’s hard, after all, to spend $29 billion on new signal systems, and Metro-North’s Penn Station Access plan won’t be that expensive.
And so it begin is definitely one way to sum up Prendergast’s talk. It didn’t break new ground or reveal anything exciting or special. It simply repeated what needs to be said over and over again: The MTA is asking for a lot of money, it needs the money, and it needs business support to realize its plans. For the next 12 months, that’s going to be the party line.