Archive for Capital Program 2015-2019
Nobody ever likes to grovel. It’s that antiestablishment aversion to brown-nosers we all develop in middle school, but yet, there comes a time in every person’s career when, if one is not the ultimate, one must grovel. Thus, when the MTA sent out a press release on the MTA Board’s approval Wednesday of the revised and pared-down $29 billion five-year capital plan, agency head Tom Prendergast had to grovel.
“Thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the hard work of our dedicated MTA staff, this revised Capital Program will reduce costs and deliver projects more efficiently without cutting any projects or the benefits they will bring to our customers,” Prendergast said. You can almost hear him gritting his teeth via press release.
Cuomo played the part. Calling Wednesday a “great day,” Cuomo easily dismissed the months of childish fighting. “I challenged the MTA to revise its Capital Program in a way that reduced costs and delivered results more efficiently, without cutting any major projects or the benefits they will bring to commuters – and that is exactly what this new Program does,” he said. “Along with the State’s historic $8.3 billion investment and significant funding from the City to pay its fair share, this will mean a stronger, safer and more reliable MTA well into the future.”
Take that for what you will (and keep in mind that Cuomo’s funding solution likely just means more MTA debt). Now that the capital plan approval is on its way toward full approval, the reality is that the MTA isn’t exactly underfunded. It can tap into a massive amount of money to keep up current projects and implement future ones. Whether the agency spends well and gets bang for the buck is certainly in doubt, but the money, in some form or another, is there.
So with the capital plan approved — and one that relies more on city input — what’s changed? When the MTA first unveiled the 2015-2019 Capital Program during the summer of 2014, we delved into the request for funds for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and a variety of other measures, from signal work to Penn Station Access to the MetroCard replacement and beyond. The new plan shows how even a contribution of just a few billion dollars, as Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually ponied up, can skew things.
Notably and most importantly, the idea that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will see shovels enter the ground before the end of the decade has gone up in smoke. Instead of proposing $1.5 billion for the northern section of the long-awaiting subway line, the MTA has pared down its request to slightly over $500 million, and nearly all of this money is expected to come from federal sources. Here’s MTA-speak on the project:
The proposed 2015-2019 Capital Program provides $535 million to commence SAS Phase 2. This is a reduction of $1.0 billion compared to the previous 2015-2019 capital plan proposal that was submitted in September 2014, reflecting funding availability and the ability to implement scope within the plan period. Included are environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation. The balance of the work necessary for operation will be funded in future capital programs.
In plain English, this means that the MTA no longer expects to start the actual construction work on Harlem-bound part of the Second Ave. Subway until the 2020-2024 capital plan comes due. Previously, the MTA had expected some contracts for tunneling to be issued by 2019, but in the capital plan and subsequent comments on Wednesday, officials indicated that this was no longer a realistic timeline, considering the MTA’s ability to undertake the work and available funding. For what it’s worth, the billion-dollar reduction for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is the single biggest line-item cut in the new capital plan.
Now, this move doesn’t mean that the Second Ave. Subway extension to 125th St. and Lexington Ave. is dead. In fact, it commits the MTA to spend half a billion dollars on this vital part of the line. Rather, it means New Yorkers will have to wait longer for those stations at 106th, 116th and 125th, and, as time leads to more dollars spent, it’s likely to cost more as well. This is a symptom of the phased approach indicative of the funding constraints placed upon the MTA. It’s also a result of the ballooning East Side Access costs as the MTA needs to secure the dollars to finish that project. So we’ll wait until the mid-to-late 2020s instead. What a crazy thought.
Meanwhile, the new capital plan has more projects worth considering over the next few days. As a laundry list, the MTA, under pressure for some reason from de Blasio, will spend a whopping $5 million on the initial studies for a Utica Ave. extension (something I’ll revisit shortly) and will spend the same amount on studying converting Staten Island’s North Shore rail right-of-way to a bus rapid transit route. Investments in the new fare payment system have jumped from $250 million to $419 million, an indication that the MTA actually wants to see this project through, and the agency has yet again vowed to deliver countdown clocks throughout the subways by 2020 as well.
The agency has also signed up for a few more long-awaited subway-related projects. After years of requests, the agency will finally offer a connection between Livonia Ave. on the L and Junius St. on the 3 for a cost of $30 million, and the 42nd St. shuttle may see a big overhaul. (Look for more on that project soon too.) The MTA will also spend $740 million — up from $561 million — on ADA-related projects, including new entrances for the L train at Avenue A.
So that’s a lot to digest, and it barely scratches the surface. You can read through the revised booklet if you wish; the MTA has published it as a pdf. I’m not thrilled about the elongation of the Second Ave. Subway timeline, and I feel it’s indicative of the way the MTA operates (or doesn’t) these days. That’s the cost though of a 10 percent reduction in budget. If that’s the “bloat” Cuomo referred to when he bashed the initial capital plan, I don’t have high hopes for subway expansion until a more transit-friendly governor takes over in Albany. Either way, though, $29 billion is nothing to scoff at.
The topic of MTA debt is not a particularly sexy one. I’d rather write about how the subways are unsustainably crowded and how the MTA has no real plan for immediate relief. I’d rather write about light rail efforts through Queens, the latest goings-on in London with regards to overnight Tube service or some thoughts on closed entrances. But MTA debt is too important to ignore. Even if you’re tempted to close the tab or allow your mind to wander, stick with me for a few hundred words today.
The latest round of news about MTA debt comes from — you’ll never believe this — Gov. Andrew Cuomo. A few weeks ago, when Gov. Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio magnanimously did their jobs and came to an agreement on MTA capital funding, the two politicians hailed the deal as something groundbreaking. The MTA, the argument went, had unprecedented support from the state and unprecedented support from the city. Everyone wins!
If that sounds too good to be true, well, you’ve been paying attention. Despite announcing around $9 billion in state support for the MTA, Cuomo has not once said how he plans to generate this money. Had he wanted to see through a Move New York-style traffic pricing plan, he could have, but that would have gone against the ethos of Mr. Muscle Car Governor Cuomo. Instead, he’s like to turn to the tried-and-truth method of totally screwing over New York City subway riders: debt.
Bill Hammond, now writing for Politico after his unceremonious ouster from the struggling Daily News, had the story:
At best – and assuming it holds up – the deal settles only the latest turf squabble between feuding politicians: With a $10 billion hole to fill in the MTA’s $26 billion five-year capital plan, Governor Andrew Cuomo committed that the state will contribute $8.3 billion while Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to chip in $2.5 billion from city coffers. But this divvying-up exercise was a crisis only to the extent that governor made it one, as a tactic to offload a fraction of the headache onto his declared friend, fellow Democrat and favorite punching bag at City Hall.
The real political heavy lifting to be done involves not who collects that $10 billion tab, but who gets stuck with paying it – and how and when. And whether the MTA will walk away with a short-term cash infusion, or with the sustained base of funding necessary to build and maintain a halfway up-to-date mass transit system…The overdue debate on covering the $10 billion gap should begin to get serious in January, when Cuomo is promising to spell out, as part of his annual budget proposal, exactly how he intends to raise the $8.3 billion. De Blasio, too, will have to account for his share in budget documents due in the next three months.
This should be interesting. The Daily News has reported that Cuomo will likely borrow some or all of his amount – which is legitimate, given that it will be used for long-term investments in infrastructure – and that he is ruling out tax hikes. But $8.3 billion would add 15 percent to the state’s already prodigious debt load of $55 billion. Even if spread over a 30-year term, the annual payments on those new bonds would be roughly half a billion dollars – corresponding to nearly a 10 percent increase over current debt service.
The Daily News report Hammond mentioned is right here, and it’s a tells a tale of more debt. The MTA may have to borrow to cover the state’s contributions, and it’s not clear if the MTA or the state would fund the debt. The MTA simply cannot afford more debt. The agency is already carrying $35 billion in debt — debt that’s funded through fare revenue. More would simply push the cost of the capital plan onto the shoulders of riders, no matter what Cuomo says.
So Cuomo’s solution has been anything but a solution. Without identifying a revenue stream, debt simply becomes something we must fund in the future, and that’s no way to solve transit funding problems. Will New York wake up the problems of debt? It’s not looking good for the near future or the far future, and that’s not a positive development for anyone.
With the celebration over, the hungover can settle in. Now I’m not talking about the Royals or the Blue Jays; those two teams are still celebrating their victories this week. Rather, I’m talking about the MTA and its capital plan. After relief over this past weekend’s surprise agreement on capital funding, we’ve had to face the reality of the MTA’s spending decisions this week. We know that everything costs too much, and no one wants to tackle cost reform. But what are we actually getting for our $28 billion?
To only kinda sorta answer my own question, we don’t know with 100% certainty what the capital plan will be. The MTA has trimmed a few billion dollars and still has to cut $700 million. There’s also a chance that Mayor Bill de Blasio will wake up tomorrow and suddenly care about transit projects in the city, thus requiring the MTA to adjust some plans for city-focused projects. That is, however, a remote likelihood, and we can lean on the previously-released proposal for a $32 billion plan for guidance.
The highlights are a bit underwhelming unfortunately. The big-ticket expansion plans involve Penn Station Access, a post-East Side Access plan being pushed by the Governor that will bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station. The proposal involves four stops in the Bronx that cost far too much, and no indication that the MTA will rationalize intra-city commuter rail fares to encourage ridership to and from the Bronx and Manhattan. It’s a fine proposal on its merits, but it needs some help.
The other big-ticket item is Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and I have to assume this is where the bulk of the city’s dollars will go. Unfortunately, though, this is a request for only some of the money the MTA needs for Phase 2, and the agency has been tight-lipped on how much the northern extension will cost. We likely won’t see Phase 2 open until some time in the mid-2020s, but at least the MTA is continuing with this work. Why it will take 2-3 years after Phase 1 opens to start the next segment is a question yet to be answered.
Beyond those two items, the capital money is going to bunch of technology upgrades that are long overdue. The MTA hopes to complete installation of the Help Point system, something that may or may not be a total waste of money (and I do hope to revisit that soon), and the badly-needed double-tracking project for the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma Branch will wrap. Positive Train Control will become a reality for Metro-North and the LIRR, and CBTC will become a reality for some New York City subway lines. Ideally, countdown clocks will expand to the B Division’s lettered subway lines, and as Cuomo noted this week, 1000 new subway cars — including new rolling stock for the C train — are on the way.
As far as the funding split goes, the mix tends to favor the commuter rail lines on a ridership basis, but you can make the argument that all MTA divisions need the dollars. New York City Transit will get $17 billion, the overwhelming majority of the money, but only 20 stations will be eligible for upgrades under this plan. The LIRR and Metro-North will split around $5.7 billion, but is this all even enough?
Some MTA sources I’ve spoken with wanted the agency to ask for $40 billion off the bat so the reductions would still lead to a high capital plan. Without spending reform though, money simply feeds the beast. Meanwhile, as we learned a year ago, not everyone is too enthusiastic about this plan. The CBC in particular levied harsh criticism toward the MTA for failing to provide adequate cost-benefit analyses or sufficiently prioritizing state of good repair work. Staten Islanders too don’t see much value in it.
Ultimately, the MTA has an overwhelming number of repairs to make, a finite amount of money, and systematic problems with cost control. It’s an imperfect solution, but it must go forward as the alternative is far far worse. Does it help the MTA adjust to a life where trains are crowded well out of normal peak hours and service can’t match demand? That’s hard to say, and if it doesn’t, we’re in trouble. As the money continues to flow, though, now is time for some reforms on costs. Will someone take up that mantle?
It’s been three days since Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo announced their surprise deal on MTA capital funding, and we’ve all had enough time to declare Cuomo the winner. After months of bruising media battles, the city gave up more money in exchange for a hollow promise from the state to continue to follow a toothless law. Despite his rhetoric on affordable housing, De Blasio hasn’t embraced transit as a cause, and it showed.
For now, though, that’s neither here nor there. The state and the city still have to identify funding sources, and claims that no new taxes or fees will be implemented to generate $9 billion from the state seems laughable. The resistance to a rational plan to cut Manhattan congestion and generate transit revenue is almost as absurd as the fight between the mayor and governor over funding splits. But there’s another problem that now comes to the forefront and that problem is cost.
During the debate over funding responsibilities, the discussion on costs often took a backseat. The usual crew of transit advocates in New York City aren’t too keen to press on costs. They’re content to fight for dollars without questioning whether those dollars are being spent appropriately or efficiently, and as a sweeping generalization, few people would claim they are. Do the MTA’s costs make sense? No, of course not. Is anyone willing to do anything about it? Not yet.
The MTA’s high capital costs — and, to a lesser degree, operating costs — is a topic I’ve covered before, most recently in April when Dana Rubinstein reported that most transit organizations in New York City relied upon Alon Levy’s work to discuss high costs. This isn’t to say Alon’s work isn’t worthwhile; as I said then and reiterate now, it’s the most thorough examination of New York City’s high costs that exists in the transit sphere. His 2011 examination of ongoing capital projects remains ever green, and even without the absurdly expensive Fulton St. Transit Center or WTC PATH hug, New York City is home to the three most expensive underground rail projects in the world on a per-kilometer basis. At $1.5 billion per kilometer, the 7 line extension wasn’t the most expensive because the Second Ave. Subway costs $200 million more per kilometer, and that’s not the most expensive because East Side Access costs nearly double that.
It’s time to figure out why. In her story earlier this year, Rubinstein blamed “labor costs, work rules, managerial incompetence, the spaghetti of infrastructure tangled beneath Manhattan’s streets, a political firmament without incentive to tackle hard issues.” She didn’t touch upon another issue — corruption — that few are willing to discuss on the record, but corruption too serves as a reason for New York City’s high costs. Is anyone willing to rein them all in?
At this point, with the MTA’s capital plan funded to the tune of nearly $30 billion when all is said and done, it’s hard to argue that the agency is underfunded. It certainly has a backlog of projects due to decades of deferred maintenance and can’t seem to get out of its own way with regards to technological improvements such as the widespread installation of countdown clocks or a fare payment system a bit more cutting edge than the late 1980s/early 1990s MetroCard system. But the agency now also has access to a ton of cash, and imagine just how far it could go if the Second Ave. Subway cost $600 million per kilometer — second on Alon’s list to London’s Crossrail project — rather than three times as much.
Taking on costs and the forces driving them up requires far more of a politically bruising fight than securing some funding. Everyone wanted the funding, but few of the recipients of the funding, especially those in the construction industry, want lower construction costs. But without some attempt at rationalizing MTA construction costs, we’ll never have the subway expansion we need or a modern system with bells and whistles New Yorkers enjoy in other cities. And that’s a battle that someone needs to fight.
For those of you who like to unplug during the weekend, you may have missed New York City’s biggest Saturday news drop in years. After months of unnecessarily feuding over MTA financing, the governor and mayor agreed on a capital funding split that puts the city on the hook for $2.5 billion and presents a clear win for Andrew Cuomo. I’ll have more on how this deal may affect certain projects. Today, we look at the politics involved.
In The Times Michael Grynbaum explores how this deal won’t stop the political fighting between Cuomo and Bill de Blasio. Two car guys haven’t exactly had their “come to Jesus” moment with regards to support for transit. The Journal meanwhile delved into the ins and outs of the deal. Here’s Josh Dawsey and Andrew Tangel:
According to people familiar with the matter, the agreement that the city will commit $2.5 billion for major repair and expansion projects was largely reached because neither side saw a continuing fight as politically advantageous—and recognized the downsides of battling over funding while the city’s subways were increasingly packed and deteriorating…
For at least a week Mr. de Blasio and his aides wanted to end the fight but also didn’t want to be seen as capitulating to the governor’s demands, people familiar with the matter said. Even as the governor and the mayor quarreled with each other in public, top aides to the mayor discussed how much to offer Albany and called business leaders, advocates and others to gain support. They finally decided to offer $2.5 billion to the state Wednesday night—hoping to strike a deal soon thereafter—and one was essentially completed by late Friday…
Still, the deal over MTA funding presented unanswered questions. Some observers wondered how specifically the state and city would come up with the money. Others wondered how the MTA could reduce costs from its five-year plan without also cutting back on the scope of the projects. Much of the work involves major repairs to keep the system running safely or improvements to bring equipment such as signals and switches up to modern standards.
The authority is expected in coming days to weigh how it might potentially alter some projects’ timing without scaling them back, according to a person familiar with the matter. The MTA’s board is expected to vote on a revised plan later this month. There are also questions about how much sway the city gained from the deal over MTA projects within the five boroughs. Mr. de Blasio said Saturday that the agreement would give riders and taxpayers a stronger voice.
If you read between the lines — or if you read the lines — of Tangel and Dawsey’s report, the city thinks it got something when in reality, it got nothing. Cuomo promised to follow a toothless law, and he’s unlikely to sweep up much, if any, from the MTA anyway considering how politically loaded such a move has become. It’s also not worth the headache over $20-$30 million every year when $8.3 billion is on the table.
Meanwhile, what exactly did the city get? The mix of projects is unlikely to change, and if, say, the MetroCard replacement effort or B division countdown clocks continue to lag, the MTA can point to the $700 million gap between the state’s request and the city’s promise as the cause. It’s ugly all around.
Ultimately, the two car guys remain what they were, but the MTA gets its money. The fighting was unnecessary and led to no new reforms on the spending side that are badly needed. What happens in five years is, as de Blasio and Cuomo figure, someone else’s problem.
In a rare moment of political collaboration that ends months of unnecessary bickering, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio have agreed on a funding scheme that will close the MTA’s capital budget gap, the Governor’s office announced this afternoon. As part of the agreement, the city will contribute $2.5 billion to the 2015-2019 plan, and the MTA will trim $700 million from the spending plan through either “further efficiencies or necessary program reductions.” Although numerous questions remain regarding this deal, the MTA will likely not have to slow down or suspend work on ongoing capital work, and the summer (and early autumn) of endless finger-pointing can draw to a close.
“Our transit system is the backbone of New York City’s, and our entire region’s, economy,” the mayor said in a statement. “That is why we’re making an historic investment – the City’s largest ever general capital contribution – while ensuring that NYC dollars stay in NYC transit, and giving NYC riders and taxpayers a stronger voice. I look forward to continuing to partner with the Governor and the MTA to ensure a transit system that reliably, effectively, and safely serves all of its riders.”
As announced by Cuomo, the deal includes the $8.3 billion from the state to which the governor agreed in July, the $2.5 billion from the city and numerous conditions that may or may not have teeth. According to the press release, the city money includes $1.9 billion from “direct City sources” and $600 million from “alternative non tax levy revenue sources” (such as those funding the Grand Central upgrades). The entire agreement is also dependent upon a series of conditions though if one party breaks a condition, it’s highly unlikely that the plan will fall apart. The conditions are as follows:
- The City and State will fund on the same schedule on a proportionate basis.
- Projects in the City which are funded by the $2.5 billion committed by the City (including projects funded through non tax levy sources agreed to with the MTA) will be planned by the MTA Board in collaboration with the City representatives on the MTA Board, with priority consideration given for projects and timing based on input from the City.? Likewise suburban projects which are funded by the suburbs will be planned by the MTA Board in collaboration with suburban representatives on the MTA Board and with priority consideration given for projects and timing based on input from the those suburban communities.
- The State will not divert any funds or fail to provide any funding committed to this Capital Program or due and owing to the MTA for any other expenses unless in accordance with the provisions of Executive Law 182 passed in 2011. Likewise, the City will not divert any funds or fail to provide any funding committed to this Capital Program or due and owing to the MTA for any other expenses.
Let’s start with the lockbox: This prong of the agreement is entirely pointless. Generally, Cuomo has gone after MTA operations money and not MTA capital money. Additionally, this is an agreement to adhere to a law that has no teeth. Cuomo has in fact raided MTA money since signing the lockbox bill, and nothing in this agreement will prevent him from doing the same. Whether that’s a risk the MTA will take in exchange for a guarantee of over $8 billion is a question to consider.
Meanwhile, the other conditions are words on paper, and it seems as though de Blasio got outmaneuvered at a time when he could have put his foot down on MTA doings. It’s unlikely that city officials will force changes to the MTA’s capital plan as many of the big-ticket items, including Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, are already subway-related. So what did de Blasio get, other than a $2.5 billion bill and months of media boxing with someone who seemingly outfoxed him?
Still, there’s a palatable sense of relief over the fact that this is, for now, over. Yes, the city and state legislatures still need to approve funding sources (as the Citizens Budget Commission reminded us in a statement released via Facebook photo), but that’s a fait accompli at this point. We’ll have to see if the repeated statements that there is “no appetite” in Albany for a congestion pricing plan hold up, but one way or another, the spending will get approved, and the MTA can move forward without on pause on work that must be completed. As Gene Russianoff said in the Straphangers’ statement praising the deal, “Hallelujah!”
I’ve tried not to write too much about the political infighting between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio over the MTA’s capital plan. As I’ve said in the past, it’s generally just embarrassing for both New York City and New York State. Instead of supporting the city’s most important transportation asset, our two top elected officials have spent most of 2015 yelling at each other through media statements or various proxies and allies and have done nothing to bridge a spending gap that threatens the tenuous reliability of our subway service. As October dawns, nothing has changed.
Here’s the latest: de Blasio hasn’t ponied up more city money because (a) he doesn’t have much control over the MTA and (b) he’s concerned about Cuomo’s ability to reallocate MTA money. I’m less sympathetic to the control argument as de Blasio could ensure that his board appointees act as a solitary voting block, but he has a point about Cuomo’s raiding of the MTA. The governor has reallocated around $270 million for the MTA, and city contributions are often moved around to bolster the commuter railroads rather than NYC Transit’s assets.
Still, according to the Daily News, de Blasio may be willing to contribute an additional $1 billion to the MTA’s capital plan. The News reports that the money would come with “strings attached,” but it’s not clear what those strings are. Perhaps the city would mandate the dollars go toward Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or a Utica Ave. extension. It remains to be seen how the city will find the dollars as the News mentions nothing more than a “revenue-generating scheme.” Could that be a nod to the controversial Move New York plan?
Meanwhile, Cuomo, who hasn’t yet issued one word of explanation as to where the $8.3 billion the state plans to contribute will come from, claims no funding deal is near. This is, to put it mildly, a problem. De Blasio says he wants to see “a real vision for what the state’s commitment will be to the MTA going forward” before adding more dollars, and Cuomo says “If the city wants more control, let them pay $8 billion. Then we’ll talk about more control.” This isn’t politics or leadership; it’s petty bickering.
If the two sides can’t resolve their dispute before the end of the year, the MTA is going to have to start scaling back work because it won’t have access to funding sources to pay contractors. Without an approved capital plan, the agency can spend only on contracts from previous plans. Anything new will have to wait, and work on maintenance and repair efforts will begin to slow down. That leaves our state and city leaders with less than three months to hammer out a plan. They owe it their constituents to figure this one out. It shouldn’t be this hard.
As it stands today, the MTA has some deep-rooted financial problems. To anyone paying attention, this isn’t a surprise. The agency, backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the TWU, has been fighting with Mayor Bill de Blasio over proper city contributions to the underfunded $28 billion 2015-2019 capital plan. But the MTA has other deep-rooted financial problems involving an utter inability to control costs or deliver projects at a budget comparable to similar transit systems throughout the world. That’s a problem more important than a political fight over a five-year capital plan.
Meanwhile, there is a state comptroller — an elected official — who could take a deeper dive into the MTA’s finances. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has threatened a forensic audit of the MTA on and off for a few years, and he’s never delivered. Most recently, two reports from his audits leave me skeptical that he’ll ever deliver. One regurgitated publicly available MTA materials, and the other comes across as great big whine about the frequency of trash cans. If this is the best we can get on MTA finances, we’ll be stuck with insane costs for the foreseeable future.
Let’s start with DiNapoli’s trash can audit. He took at look at the MTA’s unnecessarily controversial pilot program to remove trash cans from certain subway stations in an effort to cut down on trash that sits in stations. Noting that trash collection and the rat population at stations without garbage cans is down, the MTA recently expanded the pilot. DiNapoli, however, is not impressed, but it’s not clear why.
He starts his announcement of his audit essentially validating some of the MTA’s claims. “There’s no doubt that removing garbage cans from subway stations saved work and possibly some money for the MTA,” he said. “It’s not clear that it met MTA’s goals of improving straphangers’ experience and making stations cleaner and there’s no evidence it reduced the number of rats in subway stations. After four years the best one can say about this experiment is that it’s inconclusive, except for the fact that riders have a harder time finding a trash can.”
So the MTA doesn’t spend as much on garbage collection, there may or may not be fewer rats in stations without garbage cans and riders have a harder time finding a trash can. To me, that sounds exactly like the point the MTA is trying to prove and a whine from DiNapoli because he might not be able to throw out his trash right away. The rest of the audit [pdf] covers similar territory. Ultimately, DiNapoli’s view must be reconciled with the question of whether the MTA should be in the trash business or the transportation business. PATH, for instance, has no garbage cans, and it works. Numerous other transit agency also eschew garbage collection, and people cart out their trash. Either way, this is low hanging fruit.
The other “audit” is hardly that. Taking information from the MTA’s recent sets of board meeting materials or perhaps just Tweets from transit reporters, DiNapoli has determined that the agency has a capital funding gap at a time of record high ridership. His platitude sums it up: “The MTA is looking to the state and the city to close the remaining $9.8 billion funding gap in its five-year capital program. While we don’t yet know how the gap will be closed, we do know that the public mass transportation system is critical to the state and city economies. If the MTA doesn’t get the funding it needs, the MTA will have to choose between cutting the size of the capital program or borrowing more, which could lead to less reliable service or higher fares and tolls.”
If you want to read his financial outlook, check out this pdf report. I say tell us something we don’t know. Tell us why it cost $2.4 billion to build the 7 line extension — a project that should have cost $1 billion. Tell us why the 2nd Ave. Subway is four years behind schedule. Tell us why it cost over $4 billion. What can the MTA do to save on capital construction spending so the money it can access is enough, as it would be in nearly every other nation in the world? That’s what DiNapoli should do. Until we have a comptroller willing to ask these questions though, the MTA can get away with its monopoly money budgets, and Cuomo and de Blasio will continue to fight.
The MTA’s next five-year capital plan is something of a mess. It’s a $28.5 billion extravaganza that underscores how MTA construction costs are out of control and increasing rapidly. The next five-year plan ekes in just below ten years of spending from 2000-2009, and the icing on the cake is a request for a few billion dollars for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway without putting a concrete cost estimate behind this next segment. It’s not hard to argue the plan is enabling rather than sustaining.
But on the other hand, it’s also vitally important for the MTA to continue ongoing upgrades, maintenance and State of Good Repair work. Without an approved capital plan, the MTA cannot continue work that ensures the subways run more or less on time 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. It’s hard to overstate this point: If Albany doesn’t approve the MTA’s capital plan before the end of the year, the MTA will have to stop working on projects that maintain and modernize the subway system. No matter how overpriced they are, the work is necessary.
So, with that in mind, it’s time for New York City and New York State leaders to drop the act and come to terms on the MTA’s capital plan. For weeks, we’ve heard Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, either through himself or through proxies such as MTA head Tom Prendergast or TWU President John Samuelsen, battle it out over funding. Cuomo won’t say where the state’s $9 billion commitment will come from; de Blasio won’t promise to up the city’s paltry contribution; and now the MTA is threatening to cut New York City elements of the capital plan. Enough.
If you care to read through the recent history, you’ve got Prendergast threatening punitive cuts to the capital program that would unfairly target New York city, and you’ve got Prendergast slamming de Blasio in the Daily News. You’ve got de Blasio calling on Cuomo to explain the source of funding while expressing valid concerns that Cuomo may continue to raid MTA funding for other state purposes. Streetsblog too is skeptical of Cuomo’s take, and like me, The Observer is sick of it all.
“The governor is being small and counterproductive. He shouldn’t make the millions of New Yorkers who depend on the MTA the pawns in the next round of this gamesmanship,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “The region’s health, prosperity and growth depend on a modern, well-functioning system. This is not the time for childish tantrums or bullying.”
The solution is a simple one: Cuomo can do a better job explaining where his contribution will come from; his proxy-statement via the Daily News that it wouldn’t involve more borrowing does little to clarify the picture. He can also ensure that the capital plan is approved before the MTA’s ability to fund current work dries up at the end of the year. De Blasio, meanwhile, should commit to additional city funding, and he can look to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the 7 line extension as inspiration. The city can earmark money for a particular project — say, Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or the Mayor’s pet project to send the subway down Utica Ave. — and the MTA will build it. Problem solved so long as our two fighting politicians can find some common ground.
Ultimately, the MTA’s capital plan is suffering from bloat and lack of reform. When the next five-year plan includes higher costs and ever diminishing returns, someone should step in to figure out what can be done about New York’s construction costs that make them exponentially higher than those in similar cities around the world. But for now, this current plan needs to be approved. The alternative is not a pretty future at all.
Over the summer, New Yorkers have witnessed a growing rift between Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio. The two have different visions of government and can’t really find common ground on many issues. They undermine each other, often with Cuomo out-manuevering de Blasio, and as everything from affordable housing to Uber to the MTA have become opportunities for the two to stake out competing positions, city residents have been stuck in the middle of a rather childish fight that often reminds me of the tagline from Alien vs. Predator. Whoever wins, we lose.
This rift took center stage over the weekend, first following Thursday’s G train derailment and then again out in the open during Sunday’s 7 line extension opening ceremony-slash-political battle. As I mentioned in my coverage of the event, it was a very weird opening as everyone involved used the microphone to stake out a position on MTA funding. De Blasio and MTA Chair Tom Prendergast could have been less thrilled to see each other, and they, along with Chuck Schumer and Jerry Nadler and even TWU President John Samuelsen, spent the morning pointing fingers on the matter of the MTA funding. Praising Michael Bloomberg’s and Dan Doctoroff’s funding plans for the 7 line extension proved the perfect foil for de Blasio’s inaction on capital funding.
The MTA set the stage for this awkwardness on Friday afternoon when the agency issued a press release detailing the repair efforts for the G train and slamming the city at the same time. Prendergast didn’t quite blame the city for the G’s derailment, but he came as close as he could without pointing that finger directly. Here’s what Prendergast said then:
“Unfortunately, the regional consensus that has rebuilt the MTA is fraying. The MTA’s proposed 2015-19 Capital Program would invest $26.8 billion to renew, enhance and expand the transit network. We asked the State of New York to invest $8.3 billion, and Governor Cuomo agreed. But when we asked the City of New York to invest $3.2 billion, they offered only $657 million. The City’s contribution has fallen far short of the rate of inflation, much less real support for the $800 billion worth of MTA assets within the five boroughs.
“Our 2015-19 Capital Program allocates $927.5 million for repairing and rebuilding subway line structures, including bench walls such as the one involved in last night’s derailment. That’s more than double the $434.5 million in the prior program. But the MTA is barred by law from spending a single dollar on new capital projects until the state Capital Program Review Board approves our program – which can only happen when the City agrees to pay its fair share.
“I am tired of writing letters to City officials that result only in vague calls for more conversations. The sooner we can end these games and get to work on rebuilding our transit network, the better we can serve the 8.5 million customers who rely on the MTA every day.”
For what it’s worth, another Cuomo ally, TWU President John Samuelsen had a similar response. “This derailment is a glimpse of what the future holds for NYC’s Transit System unless the City steps up to foot their fair share of the bill for the MTA capital plan,” he said. “The system won’t fix itself, and for the sake of New York’s working families, the city must address this unfunded liability.”
On Sunday, Prendergast and Samuelsen repeated these arguments. Prendergast noted that 80 percent of the MTA’s “assets” are in New York City and asked for more support from de Blasio and his administration. De Blasio noted that city residents pay enough and that the MTA should look to Albany. “We pay 73 percent of the MTA budget through the city government’s contribution,” the mayor said, “through the fares our people pay, the tolls our people pay, the taxes our people pay. We are doing our share.”
All of this infighting is exhausting. Everyone is right; everyone is wrong. And as I wrote a few months ago, this battle is both the death and pinnacle of the MTA as an entity divorced from and integral to the politics of New York City and Albany. The MTA was created due to a lack of responsible city policies on transit, and the subways removed from the realm of electoral politics. The agency has been so thoroughly insulated from the political process by the machinations of Cuomo that it has, as a state agency, somehow come full circle. Why are we even looking to the city here anyway?
As Streetsblog, Ben Fried calls Cuomo’s politicization of the MTA “brazen,” but I think that’s too strong. Cuomo is simply exploiting the MTA to its logical extreme. The governor should definitely pinpoint how he plans to raise nearly $9 million for the currently-unfunded five-year capital program, but the city should contribute too. The city still is the legal owner of the subways, and the overwhelming majority of us who ride everyday are city residents, taxpayers and, hopefully, voters. It’s not unreasonable for the city to contribute to the capital plan as it does, via fares and taxes, to the operations side.
So what’s the way out of this mess? It’s easy for me to say the city should pay more, and it probably should. But it can do so very specifically by picking projects that benefit city residents. The city could earmark money for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway or a Utica Ave. extension, and the MTA would gladly take the dollars without a further peep. Problem solved. Of course, this solution doesn’t begin to tackle the MTA’s runaway costs, and a blank check won’t fix this overarching problem. But that’s not de Blasio’s argument, even if it should be. Cuomo and de Blasio can fight this one out until the end of the year when the MTA has to start suspending capital construction contractors, but that just means we the riders lose. I don’t much like that future.