Archive for MTA Construction

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The MTA will close these 30 stations at times over the next few years to speed up rehab efforts. (Click to enlarge)

The MTA could complete only 19 of its planned 32 station renovations before the Enhanced Stations Initiative fund ran dry. (Click to enlarge)

When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the beginnings of the Enhanced Stations Initiative in early 2016, I was somewhat skeptical this spending program was akin to putting lipstick on a pig but willing to see if the MTA could find success in a new approach to station renovations. It’s been all downhill since then.

From the start, the ESI was intended to deliver a nicer station environment for the MTA’s customers while speeding up the pace of renovations and using a design-build approach to contain costs. The program was to cost just under $1 billion, and it targeted 32 stations. At a planned $28 million a pop, the ESI seemed to be relatively cost-efficient, but residents never embraced the 6-12 month closures required for work and local business have suffered.

As these types of programs go, it had a rough going when faced with the politics of the MTA Board. A few months ago, the city’s representatives to the Board all declined to vote for a procurement contract involving ESI funds over legitimate concerns that the ESI did not include accessibility upgrades and was in violation of the ADA. Although the contract was eventually approved, it could serve as further ammo in current litigation over the MTA’s alleged ADA violations. Still, the program seemed to be on track to deliver these new-look stations.

Not so fast. As Paul Berger in The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, the Enhanced Stations Initiatives wound up costing more than Cuomo and the MTA said it would, and the program is out of funds 13 stations early. Berger writes:

MTA chairman Joe Lhota said Monday that most of the program’s $936 million budget has been used for the 19 stations completed or under way. Mr. Lhota said costs rose after contractors began work on stations and discovered “infrastructure rot” that broadened the scope of work.

Under the original plan, the renovations would have cost an average of $28 million per station. The current average cost for each station is $43 million. “We live in a world of limited funding,” Mr. Lhota said. “We need to make decisions about how we use that funding.”

The MTA will have spent about $850 million for the renovations to 19 stations and the Richmond Valley station on the Staten Island Railway. That leaves 13 targeted subway stations without any funding. They will have to wait for the MTA’s next five-year spending plan, Mr. Lhota said, which starts in 2020.

That the program was more costly than anticipated and is now out of money is hardly a surprise; it is, after all, an MTA capital project. But this development seems almost secondary as one digs into Berger’s story. During, and despite, a contentious debate earlier this year on the ESI, MTA Chair Joe Lhota knew the program was out of money and did not disclose the funding situation to the Board. Berger writes:

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end. “I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

Knowing that city MTA Board representatives were already disapproving of the ESI, Lhota withheld information from the MTA Board that the program wouldn’t be as expansive as portrayed. Essentially, the MTA Board vote was a sham as the agency never had any intention of renovating all 33 stations, but the vote went ahead anyway. These seems problematic to me, to say the least.

It’s not clear what will happen with the ESI. If Cuomo is still around and the MTA feels this program is a priority, it could be included in the 2020-2024 capital program. I, however, anticipate that signals will be a major focus of that next spending campaign. More questionable though is the trust between the MTA Board and Joe Lhota and between the MTA and the public. What Lhota kept to himself has the potential to be far more damaging in the long-term than disclosure and a subsequent “no” vote would have been in February.

Categories : MTA Construction
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The late-December The New York Times deep dive into the reasons behind the MTA’s massive cost problem was met with an odd degree of silence among the corridors of power in New York City. Albany, ostensibly tasked with oversight of the MTA, failed to convene a single hearing on the topic, and while the MTA has recently made noises about a task force fronted by RPA Chair (and MTA Board member) Scott Rechler that will dig in on these issues, the agency itself hasn’t said much about the conclusions from Brian Rosenthal’s series. The feds though are interested.

As part of the spending bill approved last week by Congress (which ultimately included money for Gateway despite President Trump’s bluster), the Government Accountability Office will study the high costs of construction in New York City and the U.S. at large. Brian Rosenthal had the story:

The Government Accountability Office said on Wednesday that it was preparing to launch a study of why transit construction is so much more expensive in the United States than in other parts of the world. Special attention is expected to be paid to New York City, where recent projects have cost far more than anticipated. Auditors plan to examine contracting policies, station design, project routing, regulatory barriers and other elements that drive cost, comparing practices in different cities in the United States and abroad, officials said. A final report with recommendations is to be issued by the end of the year.

The study was part of the spending bill that was approved by Congress last week. And it comes three months after an investigation by The New York Times revealed how city and state public officials had stood by as a small group of politically connected labor unions, construction companies and consulting firms drove up transit construction costs and amassed large profits.

The first phase of the Second Avenue subway on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, for instance, cost $2.5 billion for each mile of track. Another project known as East Side Access, which will carry the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal through a 3.5-mile tunnel, is on pace to cost $3.5 billion per track mile. Elsewhere in the world, a mile of subway track typically costs $500 million or less.

As Rosenthal notes, the study had originally been a part of the 2017 spending bill, but the funding did not survive the final version of that bill. Now, it’s been revived, and results are expected within the next nine months. An RPA spokesperson called the news “fantastic” while the MTA went on the defensive. “The MTA under new leadership is aggressively tackling these issues through working groups dedicated to procurement reform and containing construction costs,” agency spokesman Jon Weinstein said to The Times. “We are implementing new processes and procedures to streamline work, stop customization and reduce change orders, all of which will help us drive down costs.”

Despite these protestations, the GAO study is guardedly good news if it helps realize substantial progress in combating costs. In reality, Rosenthal’s initial reporting in December highlighted why everything cost so much. The next step isn’t to study these costs again but rather to identify ways to lower costs and combat what I call organized corruption. Plus, as Yonah Freemark noted on Twitter, the cost problem isn’t just related to transit in New York City; every major construction project throughout the country costs more than their European or Asian counterparts. Still people are paying attention, and that can hopefully be the first steps on the path toward much needed reform. Whether you want to hold your breath on this one, though, is entirely up to you.

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Categories : MTA Construction
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The world’s most expensive subway construction project opened a year ago. Can the MTA take the steps needed for cost reform? (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Why do New York rail construction projects cost so much? In essence, with a $5-$6 billion tag attached to Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway on the horizon (let alone the recent politicking over the fate of the Gateway Tunnel), this is the big question plaguing New York. With limited dollars not going nearly as far as they do the world over, the MTA’s cost problems are a significant barrier to New York City transit expansion.

For years, those watching the MTA have rung the alarm on the agency’s high construction costs. I’ve written about cost concerns and the ever-increasing budgets for big-ticket MTA capital projects for years, and I’m not alone. Alon Levy has, since this post in 2011, charted the absurd costs of U.S. rail construction in detailed comparisons with international peers, and Stephen Smith, via the @MarketUrbanism twitter feed, has beaten the cost drum. When challenged, MTA officials have acknowledged that construction costs, but no one has tackled the twin issues of cost transparency and cost control. No one, that is, until last week, when The Times ran a massive front-page story charting all the reasons why NYC transit construction are so high.

As the finale in the series that started with an in-depth look at our unfolding transit crisis, Brian Rosenthal, with help from Doris Burke and Alain Delaquérière, has done what the MTA or the New York State Comptroller should have done years ago: They scrutinized MTA spending and took a deep dive into the agency’s contracting practices, staffing policies and lack of productivity in a way that lays bare just how bad the MTA is at managing big-ticket construction projects or getting a good return on its dollar. The article is, essentially, the story of how institutionalized corruption has become the norm in New York City. I highly urge you to read the entire piece and peruse through my instant reaction Twitter thread from Friday. I’ll excerpt a bit here.

First, the lede in which no one knows what 200 people are doing as part of the East Side Access project, a $12.5 billion project that costs, as The Times notes, seven times more than similar work elsewhere:

An accountant discovered the discrepancy while reviewing the budget for new train platforms under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

The budget showed that 900 workers were being paid to dig caverns for the platforms as part of a 3.5-mile tunnel connecting the historic station to the Long Island Rail Road. But the accountant could only identify about 700 jobs that needed to be done, according to three project supervisors. Officials could not find any reason for the other 200 people to be there.

“Nobody knew what those people were doing, if they were doing anything,” said Michael Horodniceanu, who was then the head of construction at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs transit in New York. The workers were laid off, Mr. Horodniceanu said, but no one figured out how long they had been employed. “All we knew is they were each being paid about $1,000 every day.”

At the outset, the article blames everyone and dives in from there. I haven’t seen a more succinct summary of the MTA’s problems than this excerpt:

Trade unions, which have closely aligned themselves with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and other politicians, have secured deals requiring underground construction work to be staffed by as many as four times more laborers than elsewhere in the world, documents show.
Construction companies, which have given millions of dollars in campaign donations in recent years, have increased their projected costs by up to 50 percent when bidding for work from the M.T.A., contractors say. Consulting firms, which have hired away scores of M.T.A. employees, have persuaded the authority to spend an unusual amount on design and management, statistics indicate.

Public officials, mired in bureaucracy, have not acted to curb the costs. The M.T.A. has not adopted best practices nor worked to increase competition in contracting, and it almost never punishes vendors for spending too much or taking too long, according to inspector general reports.

At the heart of the issue is the obscure way that construction costs are set in New York. Worker wages and labor conditions are determined through negotiations between the unions and the companies, none of whom have any incentive to control costs. The transit authority has made no attempt to intervene to contain the spending.

Meanwhile, when faced with the conclusions of The Times’ reporting, the MTA pointed to its favorite bogeyman — New York exceptionalism. Projects cost a lot in New York because things are expensive. MTA Chairman Joe Lhota pointed at ” aging utilities, expensive land, high density, strict regulations and large ridership requiring big stations.” In the reporters’ fact-based world, none of this would fly:

But the contractors said the other issues cited by the M.T.A. were challenges that all transit systems face. Density is the norm in cities where subway projects occur. Regulations are similar everywhere. All projects use the same equipment at the same prices. Land and other types of construction do not cost dramatically more in New York. Insurance costs more but is only a fraction of the budget. The M.T.A.’s stations have not been bigger (nor deeper) than is typical. “Those sound like cop-outs,” said Rob Muley, an executive at the John Holland engineering firm who has worked in Hong Kong and Singapore and visited the East Side Access project, after hearing Mr. Lhota’s reasons.

In Paris, which has famously powerful unions, the review found the lower costs were the result of efficient staffing, fierce vendor competition and scant use of consultants. In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected. “They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”

So what makes MTA projects cost so much? One answer is overstaffing. As I have detailed before, the MTA staffs upwards of 25 people on TBM projects while most other nations use around 10 for similar work. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg:

The documents reveal a dizzying maze of jobs, many of which do not exist on projects elsewhere. There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world. That ratio does not include people who get lost in the sea of workers and get paid even though they have no apparent responsibility, as happened on East Side Access.

And then of course there is good old fashioned featherbedding. As Rosenthal details, the Sandhogs’ union gets a free perk just because the MTA uses TBMs, a technology that has been employed to dig subways for the better part of 50 or 60 years. As he writes, “One part of Local 147’s deal entitles the union to $450,000 for each tunnel-boring machine used. That is to make up for job losses from ‘technological advancement,’ even though the equipment has been standard for decades.”

Besides the obvious institutionalized corruption and back-patting, Rosenthal details how the MTA’s own practices lead to significantly higher costs. This is a key part:

Mr. Lhota, the M.T.A. chairman, agreed that leaving negotiations to unions and vendors may be problematic. “You’re right; in many ways, there’s this level of connection between the two,” he said. But the chairman said he did not know what could be done about it. Hiring nonunion labor is legal but not politically realistic for the M.T.A. The transit authority could get unions to agree to project-specific labor deals, but it has not.

The profit percentage taken by vendors also is itself a factor in the M.T.A.’s high costs. In other parts of the world, companies bidding on transit projects typically add 10 percent to their estimated costs to account for profit, overhead and change orders, contractors in five continents said. Final profit is usually less than 5 percent of the total project cost, which is sufficient given the size of the projects, the contractors said.

Things are much different in New York. In a series of interviews, dozens of M.T.A. contractors described how vendors routinely increase their estimated costs when bidding for work. First, the contractors said, the vendors add between 15 and 25 percent as an “M.T.A. Factor” because of how hard it can be to work within the bureaucracy of the transit authority. Then they add 10 percent as a contingency for possible changes. And then they add another 10-12 percent on top of all that for profit and overhead.

The MTA takes a laissez-faire relationship to its contractors’ agreements with labor unions and then sits back as the contractors build in extra costs (and profit margins) to their agreements. No wonder the contractors want the MTA capital plan to be as expensive as possible as high amounts of available dollars lead them to realize more profits. And the examples are endless. Rosenthal notes that other countries’ bidding processes lead to as many as eight bids on complex construction work whereas the MTA sees two that often come in far higher than estimated. MTA Board members meanwile, are keen to wash thier hands of graft:

More than a dozen M.T.A. workers were fined for accepting gifts from contractors during that time, records show. One was Anil Parikh, the director of the Second Avenue subway project. He got a $2,500 ticket to a gala, a round of golf and dinner from a contractor in 2002. Years later, shortly after the line opened, he went to work for the contractor’s parent company, AECOM. Mr. Parikh and AECOM declined to comment.

A Times analysis of the 25 M.T.A. agency presidents who have left over the past two decades found that at least 18 of them became consultants or went to work for authority contractors, including many who have worked on expansion projects. “Is it rigged? Yes,” said Charles G. Moerdler, who has served on the M.T.A. board since 2010. “I don’t think it’s corrupt. But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.”

Firms that donate to politicians and operate a revolving door between their offices and the public sector are the only ones to bid on complex projects and they do so at inflated costs. It’s graft, and whether it’s legal is a big open question mark in my mind. But don’t sleep on MTA ineptitude either; the agency after all hired three “operational readiness” consultants for East Side Access ten years before construction work is set to wrap on the project. The waste and the rot run deep.

As you read The Times piece, you may be wondering what happens next. After all, MTA officials have been on the record acknowledging these problems for years, but they never act. Horodniceanu talked about overstaffing on TBM projects years ago, and he never acted. A faction on the MTA Board recently started raising concerns over contracting dollars, but the full board still voted to approve all projects. And the $6 billion Second Ave. Subway phase looms large.

As I see it, two people could fix this mess. One is Andrew Cuomo. He could exert the leverage he has over the MTA and the labor unions to get both sides to come to the table on a solution. Unfortunately, he has shown no willingness to challenge union costs, and he has used the MTA for political show only. The other person is New York State AG Eric Schneiderman who could use his office’s legal powers to investigate these contracts and, if legally feasible, start prosecuting all of these players for fraud. That would be a big shock to the New York state construction graft industry but is a reach legally with standards for proving this type of corruption very high these days.

Are we stuck then? Is the only outcome a well-deserved Pulitzer nomination for Rosenthal and The Times and vindication for Stephen Smith, Alon Levy, and the thousands of transit nerds who have listened to them over the years? I hope something more comes out of this series of articles. The future of reasonably priced transit projects in NYC depends on it. But even with everything out in the open, corruption has a way of persevering absent a major shock to the system that enabled it in the first place.

It’s no small thing for the MTA to opt to shut down a subway station. New Yorkers hate disruption and love convenience, and when the MTA starts adding ten or 15 additional minutes of walking per day — an hour a week — subway riders start grumbling. After enough time, grumbling turns into complaints and complaints turn into resentment, and as Yoda once didn’t say, resentment leads to the Dark Side.

All of the talk lately of shutting down subway stations to improve the speed and efficiency of MTA work has led to a rigorous debate in various circles regarding neighborhood and rider preferences. During his remarks two weeks ago on the MTA’s plans to close 30 subway stations for extended periods of time to allow construction crews 24/7 access to that station, MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast said his customers would prefer a shorter full-time shutdown rather than years of weekend uncertainty and inconvenience.

The matter is far from settled, and it will come up again over the next few months as the MTA attempts to determine how best to handle the looming L train shutdown. That work, related to Sandy recovery efforts, is far more extensive than a simple station rehabilitation, and the MTA has little choice but to shutdown the Canarsie Tubes for extended periods of time. It’s nearly impossible for this Fix & Fortify work to do anything other than wreck havoc on Williamsburg, Bushwick and points east, and as real estate speculators circle, the debate over the proper length of any shutdown will rage.

The poll I pose tonight focuses more on the 30 stations and less on the L train. As the MTA embarks on a yet another new way to strive toward a State of Good Repair, would you prefer to see stations closed entirely for 3-6 months or closed on weekends for three years? I’m not sure there’s a right or better answer yet, and I’m curious to hear from you, my riders. So vote in the poll and feel free to voice your opinion in the comments.

Which station rehabilitation option would you prefer?
Total Votes: 1089 Started: January 19, 2016 Back to Vote Screen
Categories : MTA Construction
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The MTA will close these 30 stations at times over the next few years to speed up rehab efforts. (Click to enlarge)

Is your station among the 30 due for a full top-to-bottom rehab over the next few years? (Click to enlarge)

On Friday morning at the Transit Museum, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced a series of MTA projects designed to help modernize our subway system. By and large, these initiatives weren’t new as much as they were promises to speed up slow or stalled projects, such as wifi for underground stations, a move to a new fare payment technology, USB charging stations in the subway and B Division countdown clocks. I took a deeper dive into these plans in a rare weekend post that explored the tensions between Cuomo’s lofty rhetoric around expanding transit use and utter modesty of these proposals. I’d urge you to read that for my take. Today, I want to look closer at a different element of his MTA plans.

One part of Cuomo’s announcement that drew headlines and consternation involved plans to revise the way the MTA approaches station rehabilitation projects. For years, the MTA has seesawed between full station overhauls and a component-based repair system, often implementing the latter at stations that won’t undergo the former for years (if not decades). You see, with 469 stations — and soon to be 472 — under its purview, at current construction rates as set forth in the current five-year capital plan, it would take the MTA around a century to renovate every station. If only the lives of New York City subway stations were that long.

So during Friday’s semi-surreal event, Cuomo and MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast announced what the agency is a calling a “new, rapid approach” to station redevelopment that may speed up work by as much as 50 percent while saving money as well. Take a look at how Cuomo described it. “And that, “he said, referring to the rapid pace of construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement, “is what we are going to do with the MTA, 30 stations put them out all at once, design build whole new station, let people walk in there and say, “Wow, this is the MTA.” This is the train station – amazing. Yes, we can.”

You can see why people might get upset about this. Cuomo sounds like he’s proposing that the MTA shut down 30 subway stations all at once, and New Yorkers — especially those in Astoria where four adjacent subway stations will get this treatment — were concerned about losing access to the subway system for extended periods of time. In subsequent comments, though, Prendergast said that not all stations would be closed at once. The MTA expects to wrap work on these 30 by 2018 for most and by 2020 for a few stragglers. With rehabs expected to last 6-12 months, MTA officials said the agency will plan so subway riders will always have a nearby station.

As part of this work, the MTA is going to “revamp the design guidelines for subway stations to improve their look and feel…These cleaner, brighter stations will be easier to navigate, with better and more intuitive wayfinding, as well as a modernized look and feel.” The navigation element confuses me because every single one of the 30 stations is a single- or side-platform one-line station without any transferring or confusing corridors. Some have closed entrances that should be reopened, but streamlining navigation is more applicable to major destinations — which these 30 are not. Hopefully, though, navigation considerations come into play in the agency’s design guidelines, and we’ll learn more about that as the process unfolds.

More importantly, the MTA is trying something new with regards to construction and procurement. As the governor’s subsequent press release explained, “The MTA will use design-build procurement to deliver the projects more quickly, at a lower cost and with better quality, as a single contractor will be held accountable for cost, schedule and performance. Stations will be closed to give contractors unfettered access with a singular focus – get in, get done and get out.”

Prendergast explained that, instead of work extending for two or three years on weekends and nights, contractors will be given uninterrupted access to stations within the hopes of completing work much faster. The inspiration is clearly the Fastrack repair program which has led to cost savings and speedier timeframes.

Riders won’t be without subway service, though some may have to work a few more blocks or alter their commutes. And from a State of Good Repair perspective, this work should push the ball along. But there’s an element of Sisyphus to this proposal. If the MTA can get through 30 stations in three years, rather than 20 in five as the current capital plan proposal allows,

Even if the MTA can realize cost savings and find ways to speed up the work, getting through 30 stations in three years still means nearly 50 years before every station is repaired, and those renovated early in the cycle will be well past the point of bad repair by then. It’s a start, then, but is it enough? And that seems to be a common thread with Gov. Cuomo’s MTA proposals.

Categories : MTA Construction
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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?

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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?

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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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