Archive for MTA Construction
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.
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.
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.
Early last month, the MTA announced their latest customer feedback initiative. With the promise of free rides for a few lucky participants, the agency launched a customer survey initiative designed to help the MTA better understand their riders’ opinions of existing services and their priorities for improvement. Three to five times per year, the MTA will approach those who sign up, and as a carrot for completion, some participants will receive a free pass good for 10 rides somewhere.
“We need a larger customer sample to drive our understanding of customer priorities down to finer levels of operation, such as individual subway lines or groups of stations,” Peter Harris, MTA Director of Market Research, said last month. “Our goals are to increase public participation while providing MTA planners with more in-depth, actionable information faster and at no extra cost, which we can do by adding well-designed online surveys to our existing research program.”
The few public responses to the survey announcement show the never-ending litany of suggestions and complaints. An article in The Poughkeepsie Journal highlighted practical and mundane areas of improvement. These suggestions ranged from doing away with a controversial $10 refund processing fee to better identifying Metro-North’s quiet cars to making sure fare vending machines aren’t reflecting the sun. Suburban commuters, it seems, have less to complain about on a day to day level than subway riders.
Within the five boroughs, complaints are endless. Gripes about delays are less indicative of systematic failures than they are of the daily ebb and flow of subway commuters. The louder complaints though concern the infrastructure. As pulsating LED lights have debuted at Bleecker St., riders from outside the core of the system are less than thrilled with station upgrades that seemingly never arrive.
One SAS reader complained of conditions at 191st Street, and I’ve heard similar complaints regarding the stations at 168th and 181st Sts. that are literally falling apart. Chambers St. on the BMT Nassau St. line sits underneath the building that houses much of the New York City bureaucracy, and it too is in shambles.
Venturing outside of Manhattan, we find recent coverage of conditions along the Sea Beach line. From the photos, you would never know some of these station elements date only from the 1980s as stairwells are eroding, and retaining walls at risk of giving out. Station conditions are grim, and it may be still be anywhere from two to six years until the MTA gets around to fixing up these stops. Subchatters are concerned with the structural integrity of the trench walls, and politicians are calling for emergency repairs.
All of which is to say that the list for improvements is endless, and then the cycle starts all over again. Even if the MTA can rehab every single station, they’ll eventually have to start over again as stations that were renovated within the past 15 years start to show their age. It’s the wear and tear of the daily commute played up against a backdrop of an agency that doesn’t have enough money to do what it needs to do and isn’t trusted with the dollars it has.
So the list will grow. Everyone wants his or her own local station to look the nicest, to be well lit, to have less water damage and fewer falling tiles, and when those renovations come, they cost too much and take too long. Just ask anyone waiting endlessly for the Bleecker St./Broadway-Lafayette transfer to finally open.
A little bit of housekeeping, so to speak, as the MTA announced yesterday two project completions. The three-year rehab work along the West End Line wrapped up with a ribbon-cutting on Thursday morning. The centerpiece of this project was a transformation of the Bay Parkway station into a fully ADA-compliant stop with three elevators. It is the 78th ADA “key station” in the system, and the MTA is now just 22 away from their promised goal.
In addition to a standard station rehab with lighting, platform edges and new staircases, Bay Parkway now features a system of free-standing pedestal speakers that provide riders with real-time information. These are i place as the station’s canopies do not extend the length of the platform. The other six stations — 71st Street, 79th Street, 18th Avenue, 20th Avenue, 25th Avenue and Bay 50th Street — underwent component-based repair efforts, and the 33,000 riders who use these stations will no longer have to battle delays and construction.
Overall, the $88 million projected funded through 2009 stimulus dollars brought station elements and the elevated structure south of 62nd Street into a state of good repair. That elevated structure, of course, was made famous in The French Connection. The rehab also features new station art developed by Arts for Transit. The MTA’s official Flickr feed had an album of the new art. I’m partial to the Kaleidoscope at 20th Avenue.
Meanwhile, at 7 a.m. yesterday, Transit re-opened the connection at Fulton St. between the A/C mezzanine and the southbound J/Z platform. The little-used transfer had been closed since March 5. With the re-opening of this transfer — although not the completion of work on this contract — the entire A/C mezzanine is now open, and the reconfigured platform access brings the total set of stairs available for straphangers to 10. The Fulton St. Transit Center is still on pace for a June 2014 completion date.
Earlier this week, the MTA made, in the annals of capital construction, a relatively major announcement. On Monday morning at around 7:30 a.m., the final East Side Access TBM came to a stop six feet beneath the LIRR Main Line in Long Island City. The TBM named “Molina” made two runs and will now be scrapped. With its end, for the first time in three years, the MTA has no active tunneling machine boring through the city.
As part of the announcement, MTA officials were celebratory in their statements. And why not? After all, through economic turmoil, delayed schedules and numerous changes at the CEO position, the MTA has managed to complete 16 TBM runs since SELI, the first of the East Side Access TBMs began mining back in September of 2009.
“Sixteen brand new, concrete-lined tunnels now exist under New York City where none did five years ago,” MTA Chairman Joseph J. Lhota said. “For about sixty years, two generations, the New York transit system was essentially functioning in a status quo, with little action on expansion to meet the needs of a growing region. Today, we are lengthening a subway line, building the first quarter of what will be a new north-south trunk line running the length of Manhattan, and realizing a long-held dream of connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. The conclusion of tunnel boring reminds us that New Yorkers remain capable of great achievements.”
As the tunnels dug out future train routes, New Yorkers and New Jerseyites will reap the benefits of the rock. Some college dormitory foundations have been constructed with the muck; a golf course has been stabilized; and much of the popular Brooklyn Bridge Park sits atop a foundation of dirt that once was under Manhattan or Queens.
The TBMs though won’t be put to further use in New York City. In its release, the MTA detailed the future of these machines. Adi, the Second Ave. Subway borer, is off to Indianapolis for future work while the two 7 line machines named for Mayor Bloomberg’s daughters have been dismantled. Of the four ESA TBMs, two are being scrapped, one has been dismantled and removed and the fourth has been encased in concrete and buried under Park Ave. at 37th St., a dead end for any sort of southern progress.
It is, of course, great news that the MTA has finished mining. Despite the years of work that still remain, with the tunnels in place, these projects are that more likely to move forward. No politician is too keen on seeing billions of dollars flushed down the drain as preexisting tunnels sit idle and unfinished. So the 7 line will open in less than two years with SAS due to wrap up in 2016 and ESA before the decade is out. It’s a generational change in the transit landscape.
Still, the MTA, with proper support, funding and foresight, could have done more. Adi, in particular, represents a lost opportunity as the MTA had a TBM underneath Second Ave. and removed it before the machine could dig south of 63rd St. or north of 99th. Subsequent phases of the Second Ave. Subway will be more complicated and costly due to the need to build a new launch box and procure and assemble another TBM. It’s redundant spending at its worst.
Yet, we have 13 miles of new tunnel, and that’s an accomplishment. Soon — or at least soon in the lifespan of a great city — we’ll have new train service and more transit options. It’s hard to be too upset by that news.
Transit’s whole FASTRACK program is starting to become old hat for New York City subway riders who rely on late-night weekday service. The merry-go-round stops on the West Side again this week as the West Side IRT will be without service for four nights beginning Monday at 10 p.m. As in the past, the MTA will be terminating all 3 service at 10 p.m. while the 1 and 2 will run only between their northern terminals and 34th St./Penn Station. West Side redundancies, however, will ease commuters’ angst.
The map, which I’ve borrowed from February’s announcement, appears above, and the changes, which last from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. each night through Friday morning are as follows:
- The 1 will run between 34 St-Penn Station and 242 St
- The 2 will run between 34 St-Penn Station and E 180 St; Rerouted via between E 180 St and Dyre Av
- Free shuttle buses run to/from 3 stations at 148 St, 145 St, and 135 St.
- The 4 will be extended to New Lots Av early, trains run local in Brooklyn
- The 5 will run its regular route between Flatbush Av and E 180 St; Rerouted via the 2 between E 180 St and 241 St.
- 42 Street Shuttle runs all night.
As I’ve noticed in the past, the West Side routes are better equipped to handle FASTRACK than the East Side. Those who are traveling between Brooklyn and Manhattan on the 2 or 3 will be able to rely on the BMT and IND lines on the West Side or the 4 and 5 in Lower Manhattan. Brooklyn travelers on the East Side IRT won’t have to change to the 2 or 3 for local stops.
Still, although Transit has shown great results from this program, I can’t help but feel that FASTRACK is a last resort of sorts. The MTA could not accomplish this work without shutting down its 24-7-365 subway system for a few hours each day for consecutive days four days a week. Basically, for the first time in New York City history since the dawn of the subway era, the system has been shut down over night. It’s acceptable because of the redundancies in place, but it serves as an indictment of the decades of deferred maintenance.
The future brings more challenges for subway riders as FASTRACK expands. When it reaches beyond the core of Manhattan, redundancies fade away. The IND isn’t an avenue block away from the IRT as it is through most of Manhattan, and many areas are accessible via only one subway line. Still, these are lines that are just as important for mobility as the routes that snake through Lower Manhattan and into Midtown.
FASTRACK is the new normal, and it’s not going away any time soon. That said, we’ve reached this point because of a lack of political and economic support from Albany and a clear sense of construction oversight from the MTA. After an initial flurry of complaints concerning the service changes, the public hasn’t made many sounds of outrage and the media has largely ignored this every-other-week story. Will subway service always shut down periodically on a line every few weeks or can we escape this cycle? Do people care enough or are we just accepting of what is thrown our way when it comes to rapid transit during off-peak hours?
A little over three years ago, the new South Ferry terminal had an inauspicious beginning. Due to some engineering errors, the gap between the train and the platform edge was unacceptably wide, and Transit had to delay the station’s grand opening for months over a matter of inches. This hold-up was a harbinger of things to come.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard of water damage impacting the station and poor water-proofing on behalf of the MTA’s contractors. This week, The Tribeca Tribune checked in on the station, and what it found at the $530 million, supposedly state-of-the-art facility was not promising.
Jessica Terrell had the details:
Opened to great fanfare in 2009, the South Ferry Station cost the MTA $530 million to build, and the agency continues to give special attention to its daily upkeep. On any given day, a half-dozen workers armed with spray bottles and brooms keep the platform and trains pristine. But careful cleaning by MTA crews cannot hide the fact that the subway’s newest station is already showing signs of damage.
Brown sludge drips from the ceiling, congealing in large swaths along otherwise sparkling white walls. In one of the hallways, strips of paint hang where the ceiling has bubbled. Many columns along the platform are missing chunks of tile, and wall tiles along an escalator are cracked or missing altogether.
What most commuters don’t know is that ever since the station opened, the MTA has been trying to fix the leaks that are causing most of South Ferry’s problems. “Addressing the leaks has been an ongoing effort,” MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz said in an email to the Trib.
Meanwhile, the MTA and its independent engineering consultant have butted heads over the cause. Jerry Gold, the consultant, said the leaks were a result of shoddy tunneling work discovered before the station opened. By injecting grout behind the walls, this so-called remedial measure simply moved water elsewhere.
The MTA, though, blamed the station’s depths. South Ferry sits near the southern tip of Manhattan and below the water table. “Despite efforts to waterproof the South Ferry structural box during construction by the contractor, we have experienced leaks,” Ortiz said. “To remedy this problem, funding has been secured from the contractor to address the leaks through grouting.”
With money from Schiavone Construction — the contrator who constructed South Ferry and is currently working on Fulton St. — the authority conducted repairs last year, but temporary measures have not been successful. “We’ve done grouting and we need to look at other methods for a more permanent solution,” Ortiz said.
With missing tiles and water damage prevalent, the photos attached to The Tribune’s story are well worth the click-through. The story, though, gives me pause. The MTA is currently building four new subway stations in Manhattan and an overly expensive transit center at Fulton St. Should we expect better construction for our millions and billions or are we doomed to a system forever plagued by the ugliness and decay of water damage?
During Monday’s MTA Board committee meetings, the Transit Committee received an update on the Orwellianly named FASTRACK program. The MTA’s overnight shutdowns have helped speed up maintenance on key subway trunk lines while saving the authority money, and after a series of treatments in the heavily-trafficked and heavily-redundant parts of Manhattan this year, the treatment will spread out of the so-called Central Business District.
The key slide from the presentation [pdf] for travelers wondering what the MTA’s future plans will be is this one:
As we see, when FASTRACK moves out of the areas of the city well covered by trains, shuttle buses enter the equation. There me be lines parallel to 8th Ave. one block east, but for some areas, service grows a bit more scarce. Notably, the MTA will have to provide some shuttle bus service in the Bronx and Northern Manhattan as well as along the Queens Boulevard route.
FASTRACK for the Lexington Ave. line through the Upper East Side is intriguing as well. The double-decked tunnels allow for some interesting service patterns in which express trains will run while locals do not and vice versa. That’s good for people heading to 86th St. and not so great for those trying to reach the stops in between. The MTA has yet to announce any 2013 dates for theses shutdowns, but they’re on the way.
Meanwhile, the 10-page document offered up some other numbers. During the first quarter of 2012, FASTRACK allowed the MTA to realize savings of over $5 million while addressing backlogged maintenance requests. Ridership drops through the CBD have been around three percent while buses have picked up some of the slack. Finally, the fourth quarter work later this year will involve removing all debris from the rights-of-way and cleaning the Joralemon, Clark, Cranberry and Rutgers tubes.
One way or another, it sounds as though we’re stuck with FASTRACK for the foreseeable future. It may mean less convenient overnight subway service now and then, but if all goes well, it should mean more reliable service overall. Fair trade?
The MTA needs its contractors, and the contractors need the MTA. The authority, with its multi-billion-dollar capital plan, is one of the main drivers of the construction industry in New York City and the surrounding region. Without that investment and the drive to expand, workers would see jobs dry up, and contractors would see the flow of funds evaporate. Yet, all is not perfect between these two major players.
Yesterday’s amNew York featured an extensive interview with Denise Richardson, the managing director of the General Contractors Association of New York. Richardson is a former procurement officer for Transit’s capital program and has spent her career in various governmental and agency positions. In light of the current price tags attached to various MTA capital projects, Richardson’s words are quite informative and well worth our attention.
Richardson begins the Q-and-A throwing her voice behind the MTA. When asked what she wants to see changed, she argues for more comprehensive investment in and more attention paid to the MTA. “Everyone complains when there is a problem on their line,” she said, “but the MTA moves 8.5 million people every day and gets almost everyone to their destinations safely and on time. There was almost no capital investment in the system at all from the 1950s to the 1980s. They’ve spend $76 billion since 1982 trying to bring it back to a system of good repair, but some of these projects – like refurbishing the signal system to provide increasing capacity – are very messy and they still haven’t caught up.”
Of course, the GCA is a unique position to lobby for the MTA, and generally, they do so. They were an important voice during the lead-up to the funding of the capital plan, and they have argued for MTA dollars time and again in the past. They support congestion pricing, as Richardson explains in the interview, and they have some weight in Albany as well.
Yet, as the contractors have a symbiotic relationship with the MTA, they also have a slight parasitic one as well. Archaic work rules has led to overstaffing that significantly increases costs. While MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu once made an off-hand reference to me on overstaffing, few MTA officials are willing to speak at length about this problem, and Richardson didn’t say too much either. “As a practical matter, the only way we can build large, transformational projects like the World Trade Center or the Hudson Yards is with the skilled, unionized construction workforce,” she said. “[Unions] have had issues adapting to new construction techniques and new construction methods, but they’ve worked hard to address them, so it’s a positive future.”
Ultimately, Richardson’s dream lines up with the impetus behind this blog. As she says, she wants to see “a full-length, Second Avenue subway.” She explained, “The plan is for it to run from Upper Manhattan all the way downtown. I would like to see the funding to continue the project.”
The current leadership at the MTA has yet to come out with plans for Phase 2 north to 125th St., let alone ay sections south of 63rd St. The engineering studies have long been completed, but the dollars aren’t there. A first step in the right direction would involve a concerted effort between the GCA and the MTA to identify ways in which costs can be lowered. Can the MTA and its contractors reduce staffing levels on these projects? Why does everything goes significantly more in New York than in other cities around the globe? These aren’t easy questions, but they need to be answered.
The General Contractors Association could be the MTA’s best friend. They both need each other to move forward, but at some point, moving forward will require compromise and sacrifice. It’s not an easy path.
Everyone’s favorite late-night service suspension returns this week as the MTA gears up for another round of FASTRACK work. The agency quietly unveiled the year’s remaining dates in posters that have sprung up over the past few weeks, and tonight, work begins anew on the West Side IRT. As of 10 p.m. tonight, all 1 train service is suspended south of 34th St.; 2 trains will not run between 34th St. and Atlantic Ave.; and 3 train service is suspended entirely. Those leaving the Bruce Springsteen concert at MSG this evening will find no southbound 1, 2 or 3 service at Penn Station.
Meanwhile, Transit is beginning what could be called Phase 2 of FASTRACK this week as well. Beginning on Saturday at 5 a.m., the authority shuttered Manhattan-bound stations on the Queens Boulevard line between Parsons Boulevard and 71st Ave.-Forest Hills. The closure is supposed to last until 5 a.m. on Monday, April 16th. According to Transit, this full segment shutdown for an extended period of time is aimed at speeding up work. Through weekend advisories, such a treatment would generally last many weekends, and both progress and commutes would be slow. By targeting the area in a condensed period of time, the inconvenience is greater for a week but lesser overall.
For those riders impacting, the following applies: E and F riders at 75th Avenue wishing to travel toward Manhattan must board a Queens-bound train, travel to the Union Turnpike-Kew Gardens station and transfer to a Manhattan-bound train; E and F riders at Briarwood-Van Wyck Boulevard must board a Queens-bound train and travel to the Jamaica-Van Wyck (E) or Parsons Boulevard (F) stations to transfer to a Manhattan-bound train; F riders at Sutphin Boulevard (F) must board a Queens-bound train and travel to Parsons Boulevard (F) to transfer to a Manhattan-bound train.