When I was in Japan at the end of August, Donald Trump tweeted about the Second Ave. Subway. It wasn’t clear what inspired the president’s mid-morning statement on a seemingly stalled project; after all, it didn’t appear to make its way onto one of the numerous TV news shows Trump often live-tweets.
Looking forward to helping New York City and Governor @andrewcuomo complete the long anticipated, and partially built, Second Avenue Subway. Would be extended to East 125th Street in Harlem. Long in the making, they now have the team that can get it done!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 24, 2019
It was, needless to say, a very strange happening, and no one — not least of all Gov. Andrew Cuomo or the MTA — knew what to make of it. There is no full funding grant agreement in place between the MTA and the Federal Transit Administration yet, and Trump has since offered no further indication that he knows much of anything about the federal involvement with this subway construction project. Cuomo eventually spoke with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, but even then, no one had much to say about the presidential statement.
With the release of the MTA Capital Plan last week, the Second Ave. Subway and the dollars associated with this long-awaited subway expansion project are back in the news. As part of the 2020-2024 Capital Plan, the MTA is proposing to fund and build Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway. This three-stop, 1.5-mile northern extension of the current Q train would see the train stopping at 106th St. and Second Ave., 116th St. and Second Ave., and 125th St. and Lexington Ave., connecting to Metro-North and the East Side IRT while bringing subway service to East Harlem. This project is expected to use parts of tunnels dug out in the 1970s and may cost over $6 billion.
That’s not a typo, and it’s not quite clear what the final cost will be. The full capital plan, released toward the end of the week as a PDF, indicates that the cost for the project could be as high as $6.9 billion, but in comments earlier in the week, Janno Lieber, the MTA’s Chief Development Officer and president of MTA Capital Construction, spoke about the varying figures. The project could come in for $5.7 billion or it could cost more. Here are Lieber’s initial comments on the price tag:
The financial plan for Second Ave. Subway Phase 2 is a 50-50 split with the federal government and the MTA. Because we had $1.24 billion in the existing plan and because we under the federal government rule are providing for the financing through our own financing mechanisms, so in the federal government’s view this is a $6.2 billion project. We view it as $5.7 billion. They’ve said, as we’ve gone through the process with them, we would like you to add some additional contingency. So in order to make the numbers work, we’re adding roughly $1.6 billion in this plan for our side of the 50-50 split with the federal government.
It’s worth noting again that the MTA does not have a full funding agreement in place with the feds. Lieber, who declined to comment when asked about Trump’s tweet, told reporters that the MTA’s working relationship with the feds has been positive. “They have,” he said, “basically validated our assumptions about the constructability of the project, our budget, our schedule. They asked us to add a little bit of contingency, but it’s been a positive interaction and now we’re ready to get a final approval.”
Once the feds sign off on the funding split, the MTA expects to begin work shortly thereafter. That was, after all, the point of funding engineering work in the 2015-2019 Capital Plan, but it’s still not clear when shovels will be in the ground. A few years ago, the agency had hoped to begin utility relocation work before the end of 2019, but that timeline seems aggressive. The MTA did not say if Phase 2 is still expected to be in revenue service by 2027.
But this issue of the cost looms large. Why is the Second Ave. Subway going to cost $2.5 billion per kilometer? Can the public believe the MTA is serious about cost containment when the price tag has increased to astronomical levels? And what do these dollars say about the agency’s ability to plan future transit expansion projects down the road?
When Dana Rubinstein of Politico New York asked Lieber a similar question, he started talking about fire codes. While there is some truth here, Lieber’s answer was an unsatisfactory one, but it’s a response you should read for yourself to understand the MTA’s siloed perspective on these cost issues. These are Lieber’s words:
“I think we have to have a longer conversation about the comparisons to other places. I’ll tell you this: One of the reasons we have expensive subways is that we comply with the fire code which requires you to get people out. Every body who rides trains, and we have 1000 people plus on a train, to get them out of the station at a certain pace. Other systems which run trains that have fewer people on them do not have some of the same costs associated with vertical circulation to get people out.
There are a lot of things that make New York different, but what we’re doing is already demonstrating that we can control costs by shortening project times, by delivering fewer change orders, quicker turnaround, paying contractors faster. We’re already demonstrating that we can and will build projects faster, better and cheaper, and I’m confident the Second Ave. Subway will prove that out.”
Does Lieber have a point? In a way, yes. Nearly ten years ago, while assessing plans for the Cairo Metro’s Line 4, a conglomerate of Japanese railway engineers assessed global fire code standards (PDF) and found that if NPFA 130, the U.S. standard, “is applied strictly, the structure of the tunnel and station tends to be bigger and the cost of the construction also tends to be higher.” NPFA 130 requires more frequent in-tunnel emergency exits than other international systems, but that doesn’t mean costs should orders of magnitude higher in New York.
There are, needless to say, plenty of other cities in the world with fire codes, as the JICA report details, and plenty that are building subways at costs far lower than ours. Paris, for instance, is building a four-mile, six-station extension of Line 11 of the Metro at a cost of approximately $1.4 billion. At Paris costs, the entire Second Ave. Subway could be built for not much more than the Phase 2 price tag, and at U.S. costs, this Line 11 extension would cost between $13-$16 billion. These cost discrepancies are a crisis that will soon preclude New York City from any meaningful future subway expansion efforts, and it’s not clear, based on Lieber’s comments, that the MTA can even begin to approach solving this crisis.
What happens next seems clear. At some point, the FTA is likely to approve a full-funding grant agreement for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway at an estimated cost of $6.2 billion, and the MTA will move forward with this project. No one in Washington or New York City will stop to ask if we’re getting enough subway for $6.2 billion, even as Paris could build 12 miles of subway and 18 stations for the same amount. We’re fall back on New York exceptionalism — the fire code this time; the density next time — as excuses and watch at much-needed or much-ballyhooed plans such as the Utica Ave. Subway, a cross-Bronx line or the Triboro RX die at the alter of obscene costs.
Lieber meanwhile told reporters that Phase 2, even with the price tag, isn’t the end of the Second Ave. Subway. When asked if Phases 3 and 4 are in the cards, he said, “They are very much part of the vision of a completed Second Ave. Subway, but boy are we focused like all get-on on Phase 2 which really will make a difference to East Harlem and Central Harlem and makes good on a commitment that’s been out there for 75 years.”
Seventy-five years and billions of dollars that just don’t go all that far in New York City. Hopefully, it won’t take 75 years to figure our way out of this cost crisis.