Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019

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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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?

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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.

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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.

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To keep up with growth and transit demand, the MTA has identified 25 potential corridors for future SBS routes.

To keep up with growth and transit demand, the MTA has identified 25 potential corridors for future SBS routes.

For those who were in the city and old enough in 1993, that subway system of yesteryear was a sight to behold. Redbirds roamed the 2, 5 and 7 while stations were amidst only the early days of a rehab program. The system had shed its graffiti, but it wasn’t considered completely safe. Ridership had hit an all-time low, and the Metrocard was but a pilot program gaining headlines but few converts.

Today, whether we like to admit it or not, we have a relatively popular and robust system. Much of the rolling stock is less than 15 years old while the rails have been rehabilitated to restore reliability. The station environments have improved in fits and starts, and safety is barely a concern. Ridership in May reached an all-time high for the month, and no one thinks twice about riding at night. The Metrocard is now obsolete and hopefully on the way out. The 7 line extension will open in 11 months, and the first phase of the Second Ave. Subway is less than 40 months away. Where will the next twenty years take us?

As the MTA gears up for its next capital program and the changing demographics of a growing New York City, that’s the question agency officials are beginning to ask. In a presentation to the MTA Board yesterday, agency officials delivered a framework for a needs assessment that will focus on the next 20 years. The document is available here as a pdf, and it tells the story of a city more dependent on its transit network and a young demographic that has, so far, chosen to eschew car ownership in New York. It anticipates a transit network that will need to be more robust and more flexible as off-peak ridership continues to grow.

For the MTA, the next twenty years may have to mirror the last. Ridership likely won’t grow by another 58 percent as it has since 1992, but the system as it is set up now would be hard-pressed to handle even a 30 percent increase over today’s ridership levels. Eying the future, the MTA sees trips to Manhattan’s Central Business District flat-lining, and areas with historically low ridership are seeing growth. These trends tend to be overstated though as CBD trips still account for a huge percentage of subway rides, and even a small shift of rides to hours outside of peak times is unlikely to make an impact.

Still, the MTA is right to recognize that it must improve Outer Borough transit, and it must assume that car ownership and trips will continue to decrease as gas prices, tolls, parking and congestion remain significant intractable barriers for drivers. With a projected 17 million people in the MTA region by 2035, the agency has to add service, but their plans are modest. They want to attain and maintain a state of good repair while building out the full Second Ave. Subway. This is notable because it’s one of the few times in recent years the MTA has acknowledged the need and desire to keep SAS going. Officials have generally refused to comment on future phases before the current one was fully funded. Generally, though, the Twenty Year Plan’s solution for subway capacity issues focuses around new entrances to better distribute passenger loads while adding 25 Select Bus Service routes. It’s a lot, but is it enough?

This document serves as a guideline for more study. It will form the underlying assumptions that will drive the MTA’s next capital plan, and that plan will likely feature more big-ticket items. I’m hopeful that we’ll see initial funding requests for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and the initial asks for Penn Station Access as well. Without champions though, we’re unlikely to see the MTA advocating on its own for a Nostrand or Utica Ave. subway, let alone the TriboroRX plan.

The next twenty years will, needless to say, remain a mystery, but two decades ago, who would have believed any part of the Second Ave. Subway would be on its way to reality, that the L train would be a popular line, that people would be buying in Bushwick in droves? The next twenty years are likely to be just as surprising, and the MTA is going to have to plan ahead while moving faster on transit network expansion plans. Buses by themselves won’t cut it, but subways are prohibitively expensive. These are the challenges for the next five years, the next ten years and the next twenty years.

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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.

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