Archive for MTA Construction

As Monday dawns, the MTA Board Committees will gear up for a full day’s worth of meetings. Despite the fact that the fare is set to rise in March, we won’t hear hand-wringing over the fare hike amounts or even new proposals as, by a few accounts, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is putting pressure on MTA leadership to delay public announcement of any fare hikes and toll increases until after Election Day. There’s nary a mention to be found of the looming rate increases in this month’s Board materials, and usually, the MTA announces the plan in mid-October.

What’s done is done — or better yet, what’s not done isn’t done — on that front, and for now, we’ll move on to other things such as what’s up with these never-opening capital projects? October will end this week, and the Fulton St. Transit Center, once expected to open in late June, will remain shrouded in construction. This week’s Board materials offer few clues to the project’s opening. A note in a presentation to the Transit Committee states only that “the Fulton Center Opening date is currently under review” while the opening date is projected to be some time in Q4. Work started, by the way, in December of 2004.

The presentation to the Capital Program Oversight Committee offers a little bit more information. The Transit Center building contract is expected to be completed before the end of December, and it seems that only a few items remain outstanding. But a few items are enough to delay the whole thing. As the materials say, “Substantial completion of this contract has been delayed due to extended testing and commissioning and subsequent punchlist items.”

Information regarding the 7 line is even harder to find this month. The MTA isn’t offering its Board any further information on the problematic elevators and escalators that have delayed the project, and although we’ve heard February 2015 as an opening date, the latest MTA docs give the agency some leeway. Currently, revenue service is projected to begin during the first quarter of 2015 — which runs through the end of March. The one-stop subway extension was once supposed to be open by the end of 2013, the first quarter of 2014, fall 2014 and then Q4 2014, but now it seems, one way or another, we’ll wait until late winter or even early spring.

All of which brings me to the Second Ave. Subway. Construction on the three-stop East Side extension of the Q train is continuing apace, and the MTA still believes they have approximately 26 months left on this project before revenue service begins. The Board materials confidently state a December 2016 ribbon-cutting, and although a few years ago, the feds disputed this projection, the MTA has vowed to open the subway on time. That said, the MTA has also vowed to open the Fulton St. Transit Center on time and the 7 line on time. Given the betting line, wouldn’t you take the “over” on December 2016? I know I would.

On a more immediate level, though, as the MTA wants political support for its $30 billion, five-year capital plan, the agency needs to show that they can deliver something somewhere on time or at least learning why they can’t. The aspect of the Fulton St. project that’s being delayed is a fancy headhouse while, seemingly, the complicated underground work has largely wrapped; the 7 line hasn’t opened because of vent fans, inclined elevators and long escalators — hardly technology unique to New York. We won’t know what happens with Second Ave. for another 18-24 months, but whatever remains of the MTA’s capital project credibility is riding on it.

The vast majority of New York’s transit experts, advocates and enthusiasts think the city has a cost problem. We have the world’s two most expensive subway stops — in Fulton St. and the World Trade Center PATH Hub — under construction; we have the world’s two more expensive subway lines — in the 7 line and the Second Ave. Subway — under construction; and we have the mess that is East Side Access currently in progress. For over $20 billion (and $10 billion in cost overruns), we’re not getting a lot for our money these days.

From where I sit, the cost of these projects is the biggest problem facing future transit expansion. The costs are why ARC was canceled; it’s hard after all to believe that ARC wouldn’t have come in well above when everything else is trending that way. The costs are why New York has to fight tooth and nail for any dollar and why we talk about prioritizing badly needed projects instead of building everything at once as quickly as possible. The costs are why we’re inching outward instead of striding toward expansion.

One of the other problems is that no one knows why everything cost so much in New York City. The easy way out is to claim New York exceptionalism. Things cost more in New York because it’s New York. That is, after all, why people pay more to live here than the vast number of Americans would think reasonable, and that is the argument Michael Horodniceanu put forward during his talk on Tuesday night. It’s not a very satisfying answer, and while the MTA Capital Construction president vaguely mentioned work rules, he seems to believe that New York’s costs are reasonable.

At Next City yesterday, Stephen Smith further explored this part of the story. Do MTA officials think these costs are acceptable? Smith writes:

Horodniceanu gave a number of answers throughout the evening. He blamed, for example, the byzantine work rules that construction unions have negotiated for themselves — something nobody with a passing familiarity of the work rules that MTA management toils under on the operations side would doubt. One reporter with TunnelTalk visited the East Side Access tunnels and came away with the impression that the sandhogs “worked for the Union rather than the contractor.”

Horodniceanu also blamed New Yorkers’ intolerant attitudes toward disruption at the surface, which has certainly been a problem in the past, even in unpopulated Central Park. But many of his answers were not so credible, and left me with the distinct impression that not only does the MTA misunderstand why its projects are so expensive, but that the agency doesn’t even necessarily see the high costs as a problem that needs fixing in the first place.

“Do you think that it’s a problem?” I asked Horodniceanu of the high costs, after his talk was over. “Is it a problem?” he replied. “Is is a problem that an apartment in New York costs a lot of money?” It was the same answer he gave Grynbaum when on stage.

Additionally, Smith recounts a statement from MTA CEO Tom Prendergast who told him that “the cost of construction is what the cost of construction is.” Neither man has a particularly satisfying answer, but in a way, there is an element of politics involved. The MTA Chairman and the head of Capital Construction can’t bemoan high costs on the one hand while asking the state to support a $25 billion five-year capital plan on the other. The optics would be horrible.

Still, if New York is serious about transit expansion, the costs have to come down. We can’t support the current regime, and hopefully, behind closed doors, someone smart is working on this problem. We need more of the Second Ave. Subway, but how much are we willing to pay for it?

Categories : MTA Construction
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The Michaels, Grynbaum and Horodniceanu, discuss the MTA's capital program. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The Michaels, Grynbaum and Horodniceanu, discuss the MTA’s capital program. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Sporting his trademark bowtie, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu took the stage last night at a Transit Museum-sponsored event to discuss the MTA’s two capital programs that are due to come online this year. He presented about the ins and outs, the designs and challenges, and the impacts of both the 7 line extension and the Fulton St. Transit Center. While the presentation trod well-worn ground, a subsequent Q-and-A with New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum revealed some of the limitations affected future transit growth. MTA Capital Construction does a reasonably good job at fulfilling its mandate, but beyond projects that are in progress and funded, the future remains murky.

Over the past few years, I’ve constantly stressed the need for a transit champion. We have, for instance, the 7 line extension because the city under Mayor Michael Bloomberg foot the bill; we have the Fulton St. Transit Center because the federal government contributed nearly $1.5 billion to first rebuild Lower Manhattan and then later to bolster the economy. We have East Side Access because Al D’Amato and George Pataki fought for it, and we have the Second Ave. Subway thanks, in part, to Chuck Schumer’s efforts. Everything else we don’t have because no one came to fight for it.

In a way, that’s what Horodniceanu discussed during the interview segment of the presentation. Grynbaum pushed the MTA Capital Construction president on transit expansions we’ve discussed here. Will we have light rail, perhaps in Staten Island, or a subway to Laguardia? Nothing’s happening there, Horodniceanu said, vaguely referring to the late 1990s NIMBY opposition to the N train extension to Laguardia. In other words, no politicians are stepping up to the plate, and the MTA isn’t about to stick its neck out for such a plan without solid support in Albany or City Hall.

What about the 7 train? As we well know, the original plan called for a station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. that was cut due to budgetary concerns. Even a shell station met the axe, and the MTA has left in place the barest of provisions for a future side-platform station. Furthermore, the tail tracks extend down to 26th St. and 11th, and it would have been relatively easy to extend the train to 14th St., perhaps to a meeting with the L.

In discussing these aspects of the work, Horodniceanu said it was “not part of the plan for the MTA to pay the money” to see any of these aspects of the 7 line extension through right now. “Had someone been more generous,” he said, there’s no limit to what the MTA could have done with the 7 line. But money is a constraint, and politicians are only willing to fork over so much to complete a project. (Not everyone, after all, is Santiago Calatrava building the world’s most expensive subway stop.)

At one point, as Grynbaum pressed the issue, Horodniceanu spoke about the other part of the equation — costs — and he ducked and dodged as best as he could. Things are just more expensive in New York City, he claimed, but he made some concessions toward labor laws and work rules that burden construction projects with what many would call overstaffing. Still, costs seemed nearly besides the point Horodniceanu was trying to make. If no one will fight for the project, it’s not going to happen.

In closing, Horodniceanu joked that he hopes he’s still live when East Side Access and the Second Ave. Subway are completed. I hope I am too, and I’m less than half the good doctor’s age. He also seemed to indicate that nothing is next without political support. We have our wishlist of projects, and the MTA kinda sorta has theirs. But until funding and a champion materialize, we’ll be left to dream of an era in which the MTA built out our transit network. It all could be coming to end within the next decade. Where are the champions?

Categories : MTA Construction
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A panoramic view of the mezzanine at the new 7 line stop at 34th St. and 11th Ave. The station will not open in June as originally predicted. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Last week was a rough one for MTA Capital Construction. A few hours after we learned that East Side Access will cost $10 billion and will be delayed until 2021, the MTA’s Board materials revealed the news that the 7 line extension wouldn’t be opening in June after all. It could be ready by September; it could be ready by the fourth quarter of 2014. Either way, it wasn’t a good way to end the week.

Over the past decade, delays and cost overruns have become the norm. The first phase of the Second Ave. Subway was supposed to be in service a few years ago; the 7 line was originally proposed for the 2012 Olympics; the Fulton St. Transit Center had an initial opening date of 2007. On a smaller scale, we’ve seen station rehabs fall months, or in some cases years, behind schedule, and something as simple as a staircase redo or an elevator repair can seem endless.

The litany of missed deadlines and cost overruns for only the MTA’s megaprojects could fill a post, and I’m not going to recite them here again. Everything is late, and nothing is on budget. The latest news though has New Yorkers casting a wary eye toward Second Ave. If these other projects are late, can we reasonably expect the Second Ave. Subway to open on time in December of 2016?

That question itself has no easy answer, and there’s some controversy behind it. Back in July of 2009, a federal report questioned the MTA’s own timelines. While the MTA’s worst-case scenarios then predicted an opening date of July 2017, the feds didn’t see the project reaching completion prior to August 2017 and noted that construction could stretch into 2018. The MTA aggressively disputed that account.

At the time, MTA CC President Michael Horodniceanu, in no uncertain words, committed to a 2016 date. It was, he said, “set, as far as I’m concerned, in stone.” He did warn that the MTA has “a variety of factors that many times are unanticipated.” It was a firm commitment with a hedge, but since then, the MTA has taken pains to repeat their belief that the Second Ave. Subway will be ready by mid-2016. The feds haven’t revised their estimates one way or another. (Note that when the MTA announced the 2016 date, it also believed East Side Access would open in 2016 as well.)

In materials released for Monday’s meetings, the MTA reiterated its 2016 launch date for the Second Ave. Subway, but should we expect it? I don’t have a firm answer, but with history as our guide, I’m not placing any bets. The MTA hasn’t delivered a major project on time yet (and we can dispute whether a 2016 launch date for the East Side’s new subway line should even be considered “on time”). I’m struck though by something Horodniceanu said when discussing the Fulton St. Transit Hub back in 2009. “What I present today,” he said of plans to open the new hub in 2014, “I stand by. I expect you to hold me accountable to it.” This came years before a bunch of politicians called the 7 line extension “on time and on budget” a few weeks ago. It was a laughable claim then just as it is now.

The appeal to accountability is the irony in Horodniceanu’s five-year-old statement as public accountability, at least, has been lacking. No one has been held accountable for the failure to realize deadlines, and nothing much has changed over the past decade of capital works. Later on Monday, Horodniceanu will take the spotlight when he presents the latest on East Side Access, and the accountability should start now. If our transit network is to expand, the MTA has to figure out why these projects’ initial budgets and timelines are so wrong and how it can avoid these problems in the future. After a bad week, New Yorkers needs that accountability now more than ever.

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There’s a whole lotta fixin’ and fortifyin’ going on in the Greenpoint Tube. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

While traveling from Herald Square to Chinatown last night for dinner, I had the opportunity to ride the R train for the first time in this post-Sandy shutdown world. I enjoyed the R160s, but south of 14th St., the ride became something of a carnival trip. The conductor would flicker the lights while announcing repeatedly that the train would not be running south of Whitehall St. You’d have to be asleep to miss the ruckus.

As the work on the Montague St. tube passes through its second month, subway riders seem to have adjusted. It’s too early to tell the overall impact of the shutdown, but I’ve definitely noticed larger crowds at Canal St. and more people waiting on the 4th Ave. platform at Atlantic Ave. for a Bay Ridge-bound train. It’s possible that rides are shorter as the trip over the bridge is faster than the R’s winding route through Lower Manhattan and Downtown Brooklyn, but multi-seat journeys just feel more annoying.

The R train can sustain such a shutdown though because its ridership is relatively low. What about those other routes providing key connections between Brooklyn and Manhattan that were also damaged during Sandy? Earlier this week, reporters had an opportunity to grill MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast on future potential plans for Sandy-related shutdowns, and he hedged a bit. Prendergast was in charge of Transit during and after the storm, and he knows more about the state of the infrastructure that just about anyone. He wasn’t though in the mood to share much.

During the back-and-forth, he discussed the state of the other East River train tunnels, noting that nine of the tubes were damaged “pretty substantially.” “We know,” he said, “there are problems in the other tubes.” Problems is never good word when talking about metal surfaces and electronic components exposed to saltwater.

Still, Prendergast wouldn’t give much information out on the status of the various tubes. He said that the Clark St. (2/3), Montague (R) and Cranberry St. (A/C) Tunnels bore the brunt of the flood. We also know from first-hand reports last year that the 53rd St. tunnel sustained water damage and that the L train’s 14th St. tube was inundate, but Prendergast didn’t mentioned those two tunnels by name.

He did say, however, that work won’t start in any other tubes until Montague is back up and running. “You really can’t deal with those [other tunnels] until you deal with these,” he said, referring to the ongoing R and G train work, “because you can’t close or limit capacity in too many tubes at one time or you actually reduce the level of service.”

As reporters pressed him to explain the damage, Prendergast remained vague. “We don’t believe they’ll be the same order of magnitude, “he said, but the flooding occurred in nine out of 14 under-river tubes. Anything we can do on nightly closures is where the focus will be and then we look at weekend closures and then what we call an out-of-phase which is a permanent seven days ago for a number of months…Hopefully we can do it with nightly closures.

If all of this reminds you of Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote about the known knowns and known unknowns, well, I can see why. Something is coming, but we don’t know what. At some point, possibly in mid-to-late 2014 as the work on the Montague St. tunnel begins to wrap, we’ll hear more, but for now, the threat of future closures, to some degree or another, remains. Meanwhile, the MTA is racing against any future hurricane that could yet again bring floodwaters into the subways. Cross your fingers; hope for the best.

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Remember when, five months ago, a hurricane flooded the New York City subway system, thus washing out tunnels and a few stations? It certainly didn’t take too long for the MTA to get service up and running and implement solutions — from the temporary to the permanent — to restore service. The same has not happened at 181st St. in Washington Heights, and a neighborhood group is raising a stink about it.

In 2009, when a ceiling collapse at the deep station along the 1 train led to service problems and safety concerns, the MTA vowed quick, but it’s been nearly four years with only temporary construction in place. Now, WE ACT is speaking out. “When Sandy hit, they got stuff moving quickly at the South Ferry,” the group’s spokesman Jacob Carlson said. “It’s been four years since the roof collapsed and not a hammer has been lifted.”

Money doesn’t seem to be the culprit here. The MTA had vowed to start work a year ago, but each time the due date came around, the project was delayed. Last week, though, Citnalta won a $42 million contract for the work, but no start date has been unveiled. As various maintenance projects move forward, I’m left with the same concern: When the MTA has a fire under its belly lit by politicians and Board members, action happens quickly. When projects are left to languish, they languish with a vengeance. For riders at 181st St., they continue to eye the ceiling warily as repairs slowly inch down the pike.

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Due to Hurricane Sandy, the MTA’s new Fastrack program suffered a premature end in 2012. The November treatments were canceled as the MTA worked first to restore subway service and then to repair the transit system. Despite this road bump, Fastrack will be back in 2013, and yesterday, New York City Transit unveiled to me the full schedule of work lined up for the coming year.

In a press release issued Monday, Transit touted the benefits of Fastrack. The overnight subway shutdowns allow MTA workers unimpeded access to subway infrastructure, and repairs and renovations can be completed quickly and without the same fear of passing trains. The agency used some glowing phrases to describe “an increase in productivity and significant decreases in employee accidents and maintenance costs” and cited cost savings — to the tune of $17 million — and reduced delays as reasons for a 2013 return.

“Over the past year we have found this to be an extremely effective way to maintain a subway system that operates around the clock, seven days a week,” NYC Transit President Thomas F. Prendergast said. “We have seen concrete benefits in the way the system is being maintained through FASTRACK and we are now ready to roll it out to other line segments.”

As the 2012 version of Fastrack focused on the system’s core trunk lines in Manhattan and parts of Brooklyn, the new track segments venture further afield into the Bronx, Queens and Upper Manhattan. Still, the MTA assures its customers that these new routes have bend chosen because “there is adequate alternate means of transportation, including enhanced services along some bus lines during work periods.” I’d stick with alternate nearby subway lines over late-night bus service, but that’s just me.

So what are these new corridors? They include the Concourse Line (D) north of 161st St., the BMT Broadway Line (N/Q/R) between Queensboro Plaza and Court Street; the Eighth Avenue Line (A) north of 168th St.; the Queens Boulevard Line (E/F/M/R) between 5th Ave./53rd Street and Roosevelt Avenue; and the East Side IRT (4/5/6) north of Grand Central to 125th St. There will be a few one-offs during the year as well.

Each Fastrack segment will receive four treatments a year when service is shutdown overnight from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. for four consecutive nights. First up is the D train’s Concourse Line during the week of January 14. That will repeat during the weeks of April 8, July 15 and November 4. The BMT Broadway line will be shutdown during the weeks of January 28, April 15, June 17 and September 30. The A train won’t venture north of 168th St. during the weeks of February 25, June 10, August 26 and November 18. The Queens Boulevard work will occur during the weeks of March 18, June 3, August 12 and October 14. Finally, the 6 train will be offline during the weeks of March 25 and September 9 while the 4 and 5 tracks will be shut down during the weeks of May 20 and October 28.

But! That’s not all. In addition to this trunk line work, there are a few other overnight Fastrack happenings. Out in Brooklyn, between the D train’s Coney Island Creek Bridge and the North Stillwell Interlocking, the MTA will conduct a weekend day-time Fastrack during the weekends of February 2, May 18, September 5 and November 23. Furthermore, a series of one-offs will dot the year. The J train tunnels in Manhattan will undergo maintenance during the week of April 1 while the F train’s Rutgers Tube through to Broadway/Lafayette will be off during the week of December 2. The R train will not run south of 36th St. along 4th Ave. during the week of May 6, and the 2 train will not operate south of Franklin Ave. during the week of January 21. The A/C/D trains will not run from 59th St. to either 168th or 161st St. during the week of September 16.

That’s quite the laundry list of Fastrack, and if you’re eyes haven’t glazed over yet, congratulations. The MTA is clearly engaged in an aggressive attempt at, well, something. It’s a money-saving effort to speed up necessary and vital repairs. It’s a major inconvenience to many late-night commuters who have few alternate routes. It is, as I’ve said before, the new normal, and it’s taking over more and more of the system. It starts up again in just a few weeks, and one day soon, we won’t remember when Fastrack wasn’t a part of the normal way of things. We don’t always like it, but we live with it.

Categories : MTA Construction
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While Service on the R line was restored to Whitehall St., trains are still unable to travel through the Montague Street tube. Signage crews made changes directing all passengers to what is usually the downtown platform for all service. (Photo by MTA New York City Transit / Marc Hermann)

During the MTA Board and Committee meetings this week, the agency will present a detailed breakdown of its request for capital funds to repair the transit system after Hurricane Sandy swept through. Overall, the MTA is asking for $4.755 billion, nearly all of which the agency expects to receive from the federal government and insurance. The MTA is also asking for permission to bond out $950 million should the need arise, but what’s missing from the document speaks nearly as loudly as what’s in it.

In the document — available here as a PDF — the MTA stresses in no uncertain words the need for approval for this money. The addition of nearly $5 billion to the MTA’s capital tab should have no impact on the operating budget, but doing nothing is not an option. “There are no viable alternatives to the proposed action,” the staff summary reads. “Delaying repair work could result in further service delays, increased safety risks, and lower reliability. Further, it is not tenable to substitute existing funds supporting ongoing capital projects for these restoration projects.”

That’s not new, and neither is the MTA’s estimated cost projections. We know South Ferry, for instance, is going to cost $600 million to repair, but now we can see why. The new document contains cost breakdowns, and maybe it makes this price tag a bit easier to swallow. It’s now just $600 million for one station that, a few years ago, cost $540 million to build from scratch. Rather, it’s $600 million for a comprehensive repair of a large station complex and nearly all of the technology within.

According to the PDF, the South Ferry/Whitehall Station costs combined will add up to $600 million. Of that total, $350 million will go toward station repairs, $20 million will go into line equipment repairs, $200 million will go into signal and communications equipment repair, and $30 million will help repair traction power. It seems clear from this breakdown that the $600 million does not include work inside the Montague St. Tunnel. Although there is no line item for the individual tunnels, the total for other signal work reaches $770 million.

No matter how we slice and dice it, it’s still a lot of money, and the bulk of it will go to South Ferry. After all, Whitehall St. is already open and in revenue service. Still, with South Ferry totaled and Whitehall not unscathed, the costs mount. We still need a serious examination of how the MTA spends money and why projects cost so much though before we can be completely satisfied by this price tag. Whether we will get one remains an open question.

But as I said, this document is notable for what it doesn’t have as well. It doesn’t have any details about preventative measures. The MTA wants nearly $5 billion to repair and restore its transit network, but it doesn’t yet know how much it needs to protect the system or what those protections will look like. As two MTA officials said to me during my last Problem Solvers event at the Transit Museum, it’s just too early to know what to do. It’s too close in time to the storm and too many resources are devoted to repair and restoration work.

For now, that’s OK. It’s important in the short term to bring the transit system back to where it was before the end of October, and for now, the MTA should be spending its limited resources on that approach. But that conversation needs to happen. It should happen this week as the MTA’s Finance Committee and full Board assess the funding request. It should happen as repair work moves forward, and it should happen after repairs are completed. The next storm will come, and it can’t cost $5 billion each time.

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Mayor Bloomberg — much to the chagrin of Joe Lhota — likes to opine on transit issues when, to put it delicately, the topic isn’t quite his forte. During the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the mayor seemed to pull timelines for the restoration of transit services out of thin air. Now, hizzoner has decided to tackle the problem of post-Sandy reconstruction costs.

As Dana Rubinstein reported today at Capital New York, the mayor seems to think we don’t need to better prepare the subway system for a flood. Let’s just take the money and run instead. In a radio interview, Bloomberg offered up this gem:

“I think a legitimate question is, if this happens only once 110 years, and if you get it back as quickly as they did, is that a good use of your money? You’d probably be better off taking those dollars, I think, and expanding the subway out to where people have now lived compared to when they did 100 years ago when the subways were built. Or have more trains, and better signaling so you can have more trains on the same track. There are a lot of things you could do with money to make the subway system better.”

There’s no doubt that, as Bloomberg says, there are a lot of things New York could do with that money. A $5 billion infusion of capital funds would cover a subway station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. on the 7 line extension and the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway. And I know and you know just how badly the subway could use that funding.

Yet, Bloomberg seems to be resisting progress here. In two consecutive years, we’ve gotten two storm swith the potential to be the storm that happens once every 110 years. Last year, the city dodged a bullet when the storm essentially passed over us; this year, Sandy’s full force hit us head on. New York’s politicians and the MTA can’t ignore changing weather patterns and the threat rising tides pose to the city’s transportation infrastructure. With an infusion of cash and an opportunity to prevent future catastrophic flooding, the time to act is now.

It’s tempting to sit back, as the mayor has done, and note how quickly things returned to almost-normal, but that’s not the right answer. Storm surges and flooding pose major threats to the subway, and even as New York City needs more of a Second Ave. Subway and transit expansion projects, it needs to protect the current system as well.

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Apologies for the silence on Monday. I was out of town for the weekend and forgot to put up a note on Friday’s post along with the service advisories. I did get to experience the rains and storms along the outer bands of Tropical Storm Isaac. It’s dumping an impressive amount of rain down south.

The 7 line extension is just one of the city’s many overly expensive transit expansion projects. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

So over the years, as I’ve followed the progress of the MTA’s current (and future) megaprojects, I’ve returned regularly to the issue of cost. It’s no secret that the current subway and rail construction costs in New York City are out of control. The projects are billions of dollars over budget as well as years behind schedule, and that doesn’t even begin to account for the fact that these budgets are bloated to begin with.

Here’s a sampling of the problem: On Manhattan’s West Side, we’re getting a one-stop subway extension from 41st St. and 8th Ave. to 34th St. and 11th Ave. (with some tail tracks) for $2.1 billion. The project is set to wrap up a few months late, and we lost a golden opportunity to build a station at 40th St. and 10th Ave. over half a billion dollars. The Second Ave. Subway promises to deliver two miles of subway for nearly $4.5 billion. It is up to four years late depending upon which scoping document you read. East Side Access is an unmitigated cost disaster.

Meanwhile, New York’s projects are orders of magnitude more expensive that similar projects throughout the globe. Forgetting China where costs have crept up, New York’s subway construction costs trump any other comparable city’s. So why? That’s the question Stephen Smith tried to tackle in a piece on Bloomberg View last week. It’s worth a full read, but I’ll excerpt.

A huge part of the problem is that agencies can’t keep their private contractors in check. Starved of funds and expertise for in-house planning, officials contract out the project management and early design concepts to private companies that have little incentive to keep costs down and quality up. And even when they know better, agencies are often forced by legislation, courts and politicians to make decisions that they know aren’t in the public interest.

Comparing American transit-construction practices with those abroad yields a number of lessons. Spain has the most dynamic tunneling industry in the world and the lowest costs. In 2003, Metro de Madrid Chief Executive Officer Manuel Melis Maynar wrote a list describing the practices he used to design the system’s latest expansion. The don’t-do list, unfortunately, reads like a winning U.S. transit-construction bingo card.

Perhaps the most ostentatious violation of Melis’s manual of best practices is expensive architecture in stations. “Design should be focused on the needs of the users,” he wrote, “rather than on architectural beauty or exotic materials, and never on the name of the architect.”

American politicians have different priorities. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is spending $3.8 billion on a single subway station at the World Trade Center designed by Santiago Calatrava, a Spanish architect known for his costly projects. If New York could build subways at the prices that Paris and Tokyo pay, $3.8 billion would be enough to build the entire Second Avenue subway, from Harlem to the Financial District.

So that, you might be saying, is nothing new. What about the causes? Smith pinpoints a number of culprits. First up is the problem of a conflict of interests. U.S. transit agencies love their consultants, and the consultants can then bid on their own projects. Cross-pollination, in which transit officials move back and forth between the private sector jobs, also leads to inflated budgets and excess spending. Finally, lowest-price bidding systems often lead to project budgets that do not and cannot align with reality or a lack of quality control. Somehow, the new South Ferry station cost $500 million and is already still leaking. No one can be held responsible without timely and costly lawsuits.

Escaping this morass isn’t easy. It will require a full-scale overhaul of the contracting system and contracting laws. Plus, Smith doesn’t even touch work-rule laws in the piece which are clearly another source of extraneous spending and bloated budgets. Larry Littlefield, a frequent SAS commenter and former Transit budget analyst, sees some hope, albeit just a faint glimmer. “Remember how fast and how cheap they rebuilt the 1 train after 9/11? That’s what they’re capable of,” he said. “But it just doesn’t happen otherwise.”

In times of crisis, the MTA can do it right. The 1 train returned to service far faster than it should have, and the IND 8th Ave. line was up and running after far quicker than otherwise expected following a 2005 signal fire. But the big-ticket items that we need to improve transportation throughout the region are suffering. Bring down the costs, and the system can expand. It’s not an easy path to follow.

Categories : MTA Construction
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