Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
Over the past few weeks, as I’ve looked ahead to a new MTA Chair, a new Mayor of New York City and a new future for the MTA’s capital programs, I’ve often mentioned the need for a champion for each ongoing expansion project. The current slate of capital programs all had their vocal and forceful proponents, but right now we’re not seeing too many voices for transit expansion. What happens then when those voices fall silent?
During the current age of MTA expansion, each capital project has come with a powerful funding partner. The new South Ferry, currently in post-Sandy limbo, came about due to the largesse of the federal government. It was a post-9/11 recovery project that allowed the MTA to expand and straighten a platform that served as both a tourist connection to Battery Park and a lifeline to the subway for Staten Island ferry riders. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, but the money was essentially free.
Elsewhere, we’ve seen similar stories with a varying group of supporters. The East Side Access — arguably the least bang for the city’s buck — had then-Senator Alfonse D’Amato pushing for it until he was blue in the face. He eventually secured considerable federal funding and, of course, a 20-year construction and planning timeline. We could debate the merits of that one forever.
More immediately, the two ongoing subway extension projects have local boosters. Mayor Michael Bloomberg incorporated the 7 line extension into his grand plan to attract the 2012 Olympics to New York City. When that bid fell through, he maintained some of the subway plan in order to bring development to the Far West Side, Manhattan’s so-called Final Frontier. It is, in essence, his lasting gift to the isle of Manhattan. For the Second Ave. Subway, New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver served as cheerleader-in-chief.
In each case, New Yorkers — taxpayers — are paying a lot and not getting enough for their dollars. The MTA’s construction costs remain higher than just about any other transit agency or country throughout the world. But still, these projects march on because some politician or another wanted them at the right moment in time. The MTA has conducted the environmental impact studies and bid out the actual work, but the politicians have led the charge.
We’re quickly reaching a point in city history where these efforts will wrap and nothing will take its place. Christine Quinn, as Nicole Gelinas noted, had no grand expansion plans despite her call for mayoral control of the MTA. John Liu may not know what a subway is; Bill de Blasio wants more and more federal money; and Sal Albanese, a long-shot candidate with the best transportation plan around, has yet to call for any specific expansion project. Meanwhile, in Albany, Silver hasn’t made any noise about future Second Ave. Subway phases, and the Governor is more concerned with realizing the Tappan Zee Bridge boondoggle than with any transportation projects that would improve interconnectedness to and throughout New York City.
Now, subway expansion failures are not for lack of trying. The MTA and RPA have pushed the Triboro RX plan on and off for nearly two decades (though more on than off), and Diane Savino seems to think she can get a Staten Island subway just by throwing a fit about it. Meanwhile, Bloomberg wants his 7 train to Secaucus but time is fast running out on his term. Other ideas — a Rockaway Beach Branch line reactivation, a Nostrand Ave. extension, future Second Ave. phases — are out there awaiting a movement.
But no one is taking this bull by the horns, and until someone does, we’ll be left with nothing. Over the next year, the MTA will request funding for its next five-year capital plan, and it might just be the least ambitious one yet with a focus instead on behind-the-scenes maintenance and upgrades. Without a champion or a voice in Albany, City Hall or D.C., the subway system will remain as it is once Phase 1 of the Second Ave. subway opens, and New Yorkers will be left wanting someone to raise a stink about it.
As the major players with stakes invested in the MTA’s capital plan gain a better sense of what the next few years hold, they have grown more willing to discuss the short- and long-term futures for the agency’s ambitious construction scope. We know the authority may scale back on mega-projects after 2014, and that’s a development sure to dismay the contractors and construction companies that benefit, perhaps too much so, from the MTA’s dollars.
Today, Streetsblog checks in with Denise Richardson, the head of the General Contractors Association and one-time MTA official. Richardson speaks of the fears the city had as Albany played chicken with the capital plan and the ways in which the federal government still has sway over the debate.
GCA members are still a bit wary of the House Republicans’ transportation bill, but the immediate focus is on debt. The big takeaway from Richardson:
DR: There has to be a very serious conversation about how to fund the MTA, which is part of the larger conversation about funding infrastructure nationally. We’re not the only place that’s having this debate. As we head into 2014 and the next MTA capital plan, we have to really talk about how we’re going to fund the MTA going forward.
This is a debt-laden capital plan. Everyone who follows the MTA knows that. To the MTA’s credit, what they’re doing is they’re paying off old debt while they take on new debt. The new debt has very favorable terms. Interest rates are as low as they’re ever going to be, so they’re swapping less favorable debt for more favorable debt. But it’s still debt and it still needs to paid. We have to look at a revenue source for the MTA that is stable, recurring and will be there.
With the threat of both federal and state spending drying up over the next few years — and the way such infrastructure spending may be tied into November’s presidential election — no one knows what the next five-year capital plan will resemble. Everyone involved though agrees: The debt situation is getting out of hand.
For transit expansionists, the MTA’s recent five-year capital plans have been a little bit of infrastructure excitement amidst a system that had remained fairly stagnant for a few decades. We’ve seen the 7 line head west, the Second Ave. Subway materialize after eight decades, a transit center grow and an LIRR tunnel emerge. It is an unprecedented era of expansion for most New Yorkers.
But what of the future? We know the 7 won’t end up in New Jersey in our lifetimes. Will future phases of the Second Ave. Subway survive? Joe Lhota isn’t making any promises. As City & State reports today, Lhota spoke of behind-the-scenes investment taking center stage for the 2015-2019 capital plan. They wrote:
The future is all about tweaking the existing system, Joseph Lhota, the MTA’s chairman, told the audience at a New York Building Congress breakfast yesterday. That means updated signals to shuttle more trains through, longer platforms and more entranceways to ease the flow of commuters in and out of stations. “We’re going to have to expand our system in a way that isn’t as sexy as these four mega-projects,” Lhota said. And while such mundane efforts may not grab the public’s attention, Lhota said the aim would be to cut wait times in half. “It’s about signals,” he explained after his speech. “If we’re going to have more throughput, we’re going to put more trains on the same track, and we’re going to have to have more modernized signals.”
Politicians love mega-projects because they are clear and visible signs of progress that piqué constituent interest. There are no photo ops for a modernized signal system as there are for the launch of a tunnel-boring machine. Still, these investments are equally as important, if not more do, than a mega-project. It’s also easier and more fiscally responsible of the MTA to eye a five-year plan that won’t saddle the agency with massive debt, and upgrades that increase capacity could deliver on that goal.
Yet, this blog is named after one of those mega-projects, and it’s my firm belief that future phases of the Second Ave. subway should remain on the radar. Phase 1 is a good start, but without phase 2, SAS is but a stub. To ease congestion and provide faster service, the full line must remain a target.
We are of course getting ahead of ourselves. The MTA only recently secured funding for the last few years of the current phase. But the era of mega-projects may be nearing an end, and that is not a day for celebration.