Archive for Second Avenue Subway

With costs seemingly skyrocketing, will Phases 2 and 3 of the Second Ave. Subway see the light of day?

Facing political pressure, the MTA may try to speed up necessary planning work for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, seen in this graphic in blue.

It took the reality of a delay for New York City’s politicians to wake up to the reality of the phased approach to the Second Ave. Subway. Without forceful political oversight or sufficient funding streams, the MTA’s original promises of constructing multiple phases at once fell by the wayside, and although Phase 1 may wrap by the end of 2016, the agency didn’t expect to begin construction on Phase 2 until 2019. When, thanks to a delay in resolving capital funding obligations, that date slipped to 2020, our elected officials finally noticed.

Pick a politician with a hand in the pie, and they had a complaint. In turn, the MTA promised to do what it could do speed up the planning process so that they could stick some shovels in the ground before 2020. Yet, behind the scenes, action continued, and on Thursday, MTA Chairman and CEO Tom Prendergast met with a delegation of New York City representatives in what amounted to a rightful airing of grievances. The politicians want to see this project realized, and the MTA doesn’t want to bite the fiscal hands that feed it.

Thus, a statement from Prendergast, released on Thursday evening:

“Today I met with federal, state and city elected officials to discuss ways to advance and accelerate bringing the Second Avenue Subway to 125th Street. This is a prime goal for the MTA, for the state of New York and for the hundreds of thousands of people who will benefit from its construction. The MTA is fully committed to beginning work on the East Harlem extension even before the first segment to the Upper East Side opens by the end of next year.

“The MTA is committed to find every possible way to accelerate this project. We will employ alternative procurement methods to speed the planning, design, environmental review, property acquisition, utility relocation and construction preparation in our proposed 2015-19 Capital Program. Representative Charles Rangel, dean of the Congressional delegation, has offered to work with the delegation to explore ways to accelerate the project’s environmental review and assure the maximum federal funding possible, and we welcome their assistance.

“If these efforts to speed up the project timetable are successful, the MTA will amend our Capital Program and seek additional funds to begin heavy construction sooner. We appreciate the attention and commitment from our elected officials, and we share the goal of bringing the Second Avenue Subway to East Harlem as quickly as possible.”

This is what happens when six Assembly members, four State Senators, three City Council members, the Manhattan Borough President, the Public Advocate and a member of Congress gather in a room together. It’s not quite a promise to build the line faster; rather, it’s a promise to amend the capital plan if the opportunity arises for the MTA to start work sooner. But it also raises a series of questions.

For instance, why didn’t the MTA budget to start Phase 2 planning and design work well in advance of the completion of Phase 1? If Prendergast feels “alternative procurement methods” can speed up the initial stages of work, why wouldn’t they be implemented as a matter of standard policy? How much will all of this cost? And what can we do to keep those costs under $5.5-$6 billion?

Politicians should continue to focus on this issue, and the MTA should be able to figure out a way to start construction within four years from today. Hopefully, too, this can serve as a wake-up call for future projects of this magnitude (whether future phases of the Second Ave. Subway or otherwise). If politicians — those with access to dollars — stay involved, the MTA responds. It’s a lesson well worth learning.

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With costs seemingly skyrocketing, will Phases 2 and 3 of the Second Ave. Subway see the light of day?

With costs seemingly skyrocketing, will Phases 2 and 3 of the Second Ave. Subway see the light of day?

With the fallout from the MTA’s decision to cut $1 billion in Second Ave. Subway funding from the current five-year capital plan stretching into this week, the agency engaged in an all-hands-on-deck approach to making nice. Years too late, politicians finally started asking the right questions about the cost and timeline for this project, and MTA officials engaged in some backtracking on the cuts.

“We have,” MTA CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast said, “committed that if we can speed up the schedule to begin tunneling the East Harlem phase sooner, we will pursue a Capital Program amendment to do so. Governor Cuomo has made clear that he would like us to accelerate work on the Second Avenue Subway, and we are actively looking for ways to deliver the project faster.”

In speaking with reporters during Wednesday’s tour of the East Side Access caverns, MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu repeated this promise. “We’ll do what needs to be done to speed up the second phase,” he said. But a vague promise to do something the agency was already going to do isn’t really the story. Rather, Horodniceanu opened the door to a question the agency hasn’t been willing to answer yet. When the MTA initially requested $1.5 billion for Phase 2, the agency refused to say how much the full phase would cost, raising eyebrows among those who have watched NYC’s transit construction costs skyrocket. On Wednesday, Horodniceanu kinda sorta spilled the beans.

While responding to questions about why everything cost so much, Horodniceanu said he expects Phase 2 to cost between $5.5-$6 billion and believes tunneling to south to Houston St. — Phase 3 of the project — will cost $10-$12 billion. It’s not clear if the latter eyepopping figure is the combined costs of completing Phases 2 and 3 or if Phase 3 separately will cost that much. Either way, these dollar figures are astounding and would shatter records for most expensive subway projects, on a per-mile basis, anywhere.

Horodniceanu had no real answer for the expenses. As I mentioned yesterday, he pointed to unionized labor as a cause of East Side Access cost increases, but unionized labor bills transit projects throughout the world. At one point, he tautologically stated everything cost so much “because New York is expensive” and mentioned as well the costs of building “massive underground transit connection in densely populated areas.” Tell that to London or Paris though.

For the Second Avenue Subway, Phase 2 involves old tunnels and a new dig that must cut underneath Metro-North at 125th St. and the Lexington Ave. IRT. The Final Environmental Impact Statement [pdf] claimed that Phase 1 would cost $3.8 billion while Phase 2 would cost $3.4 billion and Phase 3 would cost $4.8 billion. Even accounting for inflation, the new estimates, off the cuff as they may be, blow these 11-year-old projections out of the water. And that’s a big problem for future transit expansion in New York City.

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Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway project may open by the end of 2016. How much longer will we have to wait for the rest?

When the MTA first published its 2015-2019 Capital Program toward the end of last year, it seemed that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway would soon see the light of day. Without pinpointing the total funding need for the stretch of the line that will run from 96th St. and 2nd Ave. to 125th St. and Lexington, the MTA had proposed a $1.5 billion line item that included project management and design, real estate acquisition and initial tunneling. The best laid plans would have seen initial tunneling being in 2019 with the remainder of Phase 2 funded in the 2020-2024 capital plan.

And then nothing happened. Governor Andrew Cuomo, the ultimate arbiter of all things MTA in New York State, didn’t make an effort to ensure the capital plan would be funded until mid-summer, and even then, he used the MTA to wage a petty political battle against the city and Mayor Bill de Blasio. By the time the two leaders set aside their childish fighting, nearly a year had elapsed between the MTA’s initial proposal and ultimate approval of the capital plan. For the MTA, this year meant uncertainty over funding and an inability to move forward on projects for which dollars were not guaranteed. Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway was one of those casualties.

When the MTA unveiled its revised 2015-2019 Capital Program last week, funding for the Second Ave. Subway had taken a big hit. Instead of a $1.5 billion request, the agency now included just over $530 million — still a lofty sum and one that would cover the full costs for Phase 2 were we in, say, Paris or Madrid — but the $1 billion cut was the single biggest reduction in the revised plan. The $535 million would fund “environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation.” The MTA still plans to build Phase 2, but after a 13-month delay in capital funding approval, they claim to no longer have the time or resources available to spend $1.5 billion on the project before the end of 2019. With fewer dollars available, the MTA could make the decision to ask for more in four years.

And then everything hit the fan. Fallout was loud and angry with politicians accusing the agency of further delaying a massively delayed project, and the optics of withholding money for the Harlem-based sections after building the route through the Upper East Side looked even worse. If you take the MTA at its word, the agency still plans to build Phase 2 when it can, but the when looks a little more distant today than it did a year ago. Plus, New Yorkers aren’t keen on trusting the MTA. Can you blame them?

On Tuesday, local politicians struck back, and they were loud. Urging the MTA to just build the damn thing already, they condemned the agency for cutting the budget now. This was positive activism from politicians who were turning to a familiar whipping boy. In a letter to the MTA, Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel expressed their displeasure with the situation. “We understand that the MTA will be moving forward with preliminary engineering and design, but it is disappointing to know that this project is once again being short-changed,” they wrote. “As you know, the long history of the Second Avenue Subway has involved repeated incidents of funding allocated and withdrawn, plans made and cancelled, ground-breakings celebrated and construction halted. We hope that this substantial funding cut does not signal the MTA’s lack of commitment to building phase 2 of the project.”

The two members of Congress posed a series of questions that need to be asked. They questioned the timetable for Phase 2 — something that is currently a real mystery. Noting that the MTA hasn’t yet requested federal dollars, a move that would commit the agency to build all of Phase 2 or refund a billion dollars to the feds, they asked when the agency plans to apply for New Starts money and enter into a full funding agreement. And importantly, they asked about the total expected cost, another mystery.

Yet, I couldn’t help but think that it was long overdue and years too late. Politicians tasked with oversight duties should have been asking these questions years ago to ensure that Phase 2 started once (or even before, as the Final Environmental Impact Statement contemplated) Phase 1 was completed. These questions need to be answered, but based on the MTA’s speed and competence (or potentially lack thereof), the MTA cannot start Phase 2 work much before 2020. As MTA CEO and Chair Tom Prendergast said in a statement in response to Tuesday’s happenings, “[The $535 million] reflects the work we can realistically accomplish in the next four years given the regulatory and engineering constraints on heavy construction in a densely populated section of Manhattan.”

Meanwhile, the city too put some pressure on the MTA, and this too seemed oddly timed. Just last week, Polly Trottenberg, who is, thanks to Albany inaction on other potential appointees, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s only true representative on the MTA Board, praised the MTA’s capital plan with nary a peep about funding for the Second Ave. Subway. Yesterday, de Blasio’s words seemed to indicate that this cut was unexpected. “I do think it came as a surprise to many people that there was a change in the funding,” he said, “and I think that has to be reconsidered to make sure that everything is being done to move phase two as quickly as it can be done.”

The mayor, as you may recall, recently promised to contribute over $2.5 billion to the MTA’s capital program. Apparently, he wasn’t concerned enough with the details to follow up on how the city’s money will be spent and whether the MTA should be focusing on certain priorities. It is another move that shows the mayor’s lack of attention to transit matters, and it gave Cuomo, via Prendergast, the opportunity to ding de Blasio. In his statement, Prendergast highlighted how Trottenberg a week ago had called the new capital program a “very terrific capital plan.” What a mess.

At this controversy continues to boil, I hope New York City’s political representatives can learn a thing or two. First, paying attention to what the MTA is doing before it gets too late to do anything to change it is important. Imagine if Maloney and Rangel used their influence years ago to find out why Phase 2 planning hadn’t yet begun. Imagine if politicians were willing to hold the MTA’s feet to the fire on the outrageous costs associated with these capital projects. Imagine if de Blasio were to pay attention to transit spending priorities before they become news and not after. Imagine if the MTA were engaged in an aggressive effort to build out the Second Ave. Subway as fast as possible rather than as slow as possible.

The MTA knows it’s facing an uproar. As Prendergast said, “We have committed that if we can speed up the schedule to begin tunneling the East Harlem phase sooner, we will pursue a Capital Program amendment to do so. Governor Cuomo has made clear that he would like us to accelerate work on the Second Avenue Subway, and we are actively looking for ways to deliver the project faster.”

It is also not too late to right this wrong, but it will take considerable political effort and a lot of money. Phase 2 may now not finish until 2025 or beyond, and Phase 3 — the southern part — was originally supposed to take another nine years to complete. Maloney and Rangel should question that work as well. How much longer can we wait?

The 72nd Street station underneath 2nd Ave., as shown here in September. Will the city see future phases of the long-awaiting subway line? (Photo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority / Patrick Cashin)

The MTA has a penchant for angering everyone. Whether it’s rush hour delays or crowded trains or fare increases, the agency is not high on New Yorkers’ lists of favorite things. But rare are the days when a line item in a budget draws as much ire as the MTA’s move to cut $1 billion in funding for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway did on Thursday. Even though the agency still plans to spend half a billion dollars on design prep and real estate acquisition before 2020, lingering doubts over the project’s future have pushed this move onto front pages around the city.

In a certain sense, the MTA is trying to be practical. That there is a gap of at least three years between the expected revenue service date for Phase 1 and the date they can start construction work on Phase 2 is an indictment of other issues with the MTA’s ability to execute on large problems and plan appropriately. The MTA should have ensured that design work for Phase 2 was wrapped by the time Phase 1 opens so that the transition to work on the next section would be seamless. But the opportunity has passed. Instead, the MTA will prep everything necessary to start work during the 2020-2024 Capital Program.

That is, if you take the agency’s word at face value, and few do. As the implication of the $1 billion reduction in spending sunk in on Thursday, no one was happy. Some noted that the MTA would no longer be applying for federal grants that may or may not be available in five years. Others worry that this is the beginning of the end of the Second Ave. Subway. After 100 years, we’ll get three stations and nothing else.

But a funny thing happened on the way to 125th Street: New Yorkers grew aware of the fact that the Second Ave. Subway was actually under construction and would actually open soon, and they want more. The statements on Thursday came fast and furious. House representatives Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel issued a joint statement bashing the decision, calling the MTA’s painfully slow construction timeline a “huge mistake.” The two said:

“While we are delighted that the state and city were able to reach an agreement to move the MTA’s Capital Plan forward, we are deeply concerned that roughly one-half of the reduction in the cost of plan is coming from the Second Avenue Subway. The current plan includes only $535 million for the Second Avenue Subway, most of which will be spent for preliminary engineering and design, as opposed to the $1.5 billion originally proposed. The MTA has also dropped its assumption that it would receive New Starts federal funding for the subway during this capital plan. New Yorkers have been promised a full build Second Avenue Subway since the 1920s. Based on the current schedule, one hundred years will have passed and we will still be waiting. This ‘go slow’ approach to the Second Avenue Subway is a huge mistake. ”

Meanwhile, other local politicians hopped on board. Robert Rodriguez, an Assembly representative from Harlem, condemned the move. “The MTA’s vote to drastically cut the 2nd Avenue Subway budget is shocking and indefensible,” he said. “For over a century, New Yorkers from the Lower East Side to Harlem have patiently waited for transit equality to become a reality.Yet, the MTA’s approved plan has dashed those hopes and told New Yorkers north of 96th Street that they don’t matter. This cannot stand. I call on the MTA to correct this mistake, demonstrate fairness and leadership and include funding in the capital plan to complete the Second Avenue Subway up to 125th Street.”

In comments to WNYC’s Kate Hinds, he called the move an “economic injustice.” Relying on Rodriguez’s statements and words from others, Hinds wrote a fantastic and comprehensive rundown of the move which included a look back at how the MTA used the Second Ave. Subway to court money from the mayor and then cut the planned funding once the mayor ponied up the money. It is a must-read on this subject.

In other coverage, The Times wrote about the near-universal condemnation of the funding move, and even the New York Post editorial board, hardly a bastion of bleeding-heart liberals, noted the class issue inherent in the MTA’s decision, even if they used to bash de Blasio again. How do you build a subway line through the Upper East Side while delaying the one through, as Rodriguez put it, “a lower-income community that certainly needs the access as much as the first phase”?

So what exactly can the MTA do here? They don’t have time to restructure the capital program again. In fact, the funding battle between the Mayor and the Governor which led to a delay in approval of the capital plan is a major reason why Phase 2 is being shifted from the 2015-2019 plan to the 2020-2024 plan. The MTA simply couldn’t execute because the agency didn’t know how much money it would have. What they can do is stress a firm commitment to building Phase 2, secure the promise of federal dollars and look to put shovels in the ground as soon as possible. It’s not a perfect solution, and it raises the question of why Phase 2 isn’t ready to start the day after Phase 1 wraps. But it may be the best they can do. Either way, this has become a major flashpoint issue, and there’s no easy way out.

Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway project will eventually extend the route north to 125th St. and west to Lexington Ave., but due to MTA capital funding disputes, construction won’t begin until the early 2020s.

Nobody ever likes to grovel. It’s that antiestablishment aversion to brown-nosers we all develop in middle school, but yet, there comes a time in every person’s career when, if one is not the ultimate, one must grovel. Thus, when the MTA sent out a press release on the MTA Board’s approval Wednesday of the revised and pared-down $29 billion five-year capital plan, agency head Tom Prendergast had to grovel.

“Thanks to the leadership of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and the hard work of our dedicated MTA staff, this revised Capital Program will reduce costs and deliver projects more efficiently without cutting any projects or the benefits they will bring to our customers,” Prendergast said. You can almost hear him gritting his teeth via press release.

Cuomo played the part. Calling Wednesday a “great day,” Cuomo easily dismissed the months of childish fighting. “I challenged the MTA to revise its Capital Program in a way that reduced costs and delivered results more efficiently, without cutting any major projects or the benefits they will bring to commuters – and that is exactly what this new Program does,” he said. “Along with the State’s historic $8.3 billion investment and significant funding from the City to pay its fair share, this will mean a stronger, safer and more reliable MTA well into the future.”

Take that for what you will (and keep in mind that Cuomo’s funding solution likely just means more MTA debt). Now that the capital plan approval is on its way toward full approval, the reality is that the MTA isn’t exactly underfunded. It can tap into a massive amount of money to keep up current projects and implement future ones. Whether the agency spends well and gets bang for the buck is certainly in doubt, but the money, in some form or another, is there.

So with the capital plan approved — and one that relies more on city input — what’s changed? When the MTA first unveiled the 2015-2019 Capital Program during the summer of 2014, we delved into the request for funds for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway and a variety of other measures, from signal work to Penn Station Access to the MetroCard replacement and beyond. The new plan shows how even a contribution of just a few billion dollars, as Mayor Bill de Blasio eventually ponied up, can skew things.

Notably and most importantly, the idea that Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway will see shovels enter the ground before the end of the decade has gone up in smoke. Instead of proposing $1.5 billion for the northern section of the long-awaiting subway line, the MTA has pared down its request to slightly over $500 million, and nearly all of this money is expected to come from federal sources. Here’s MTA-speak on the project:

The proposed 2015-2019 Capital Program provides $535 million to commence SAS Phase 2. This is a reduction of $1.0 billion compared to the previous 2015-2019 capital plan proposal that was submitted in September 2014, reflecting funding availability and the ability to implement scope within the plan period. Included are environmental, design, and real estate and project support to undertake preliminary construction work, such as utility relocation. The balance of the work necessary for operation will be funded in future capital programs.

In plain English, this means that the MTA no longer expects to start the actual construction work on Harlem-bound part of the Second Ave. Subway until the 2020-2024 capital plan comes due. Previously, the MTA had expected some contracts for tunneling to be issued by 2019, but in the capital plan and subsequent comments on Wednesday, officials indicated that this was no longer a realistic timeline, considering the MTA’s ability to undertake the work and available funding. For what it’s worth, the billion-dollar reduction for Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway is the single biggest line-item cut in the new capital plan.

Now, this move doesn’t mean that the Second Ave. Subway extension to 125th St. and Lexington Ave. is dead. In fact, it commits the MTA to spend half a billion dollars on this vital part of the line. Rather, it means New Yorkers will have to wait longer for those stations at 106th, 116th and 125th, and, as time leads to more dollars spent, it’s likely to cost more as well. This is a symptom of the phased approach indicative of the funding constraints placed upon the MTA. It’s also a result of the ballooning East Side Access costs as the MTA needs to secure the dollars to finish that project. So we’ll wait until the mid-to-late 2020s instead. What a crazy thought.

Meanwhile, the new capital plan has more projects worth considering over the next few days. As a laundry list, the MTA, under pressure for some reason from de Blasio, will spend a whopping $5 million on the initial studies for a Utica Ave. extension (something I’ll revisit shortly) and will spend the same amount on studying converting Staten Island’s North Shore rail right-of-way to a bus rapid transit route. Investments in the new fare payment system have jumped from $250 million to $419 million, an indication that the MTA actually wants to see this project through, and the agency has yet again vowed to deliver countdown clocks throughout the subways by 2020 as well.

The agency has also signed up for a few more long-awaited subway-related projects. After years of requests, the agency will finally offer a connection between Livonia Ave. on the L and Junius St. on the 3 for a cost of $30 million, and the 42nd St. shuttle may see a big overhaul. (Look for more on that project soon too.) The MTA will also spend $740 million — up from $561 million — on ADA-related projects, including new entrances for the L train at Avenue A.

So that’s a lot to digest, and it barely scratches the surface. You can read through the revised booklet if you wish; the MTA has published it as a pdf. I’m not thrilled about the elongation of the Second Ave. Subway timeline, and I feel it’s indicative of the way the MTA operates (or doesn’t) these days. That’s the cost though of a 10 percent reduction in budget. If that’s the “bloat” Cuomo referred to when he bashed the initial capital plan, I don’t have high hopes for subway expansion until a more transit-friendly governor takes over in Albany. Either way, though, $29 billion is nothing to scoff at.

As the public deadline for completion of the Second Ave. Subway nears, stories about the W train have been popping up with near-monthly regularity. So even though the MTA stated last month that Astoria service wouldn’t be reduced when the Q is re-routed to the Upper East Side, they were happy to reiterate this position when amNew York came a-knockin’. Although the MTA hasn’t identified just how service patterns will change or what the new Astoria service will be called, this time around, word on the street is that reviving the W is firmly under consideration.

Marc Beja’s story covers some familiar territory. The MTA isn’t saying much publicly about service patterns, but the agency has held various off-the-record conversations with rider advocates and neighborhood groups acknowledging that the current N train alone is not sufficient for Astoria subway riders. One of the ideas on the table is reviving the W — a local in Manhattan that terminated at Whitehall St. and ran to Astoria.

Reiterating the MTA’s position on subway frequency, Kevin Ortiz, a Transit spokesman, said to the daily, “The current level of service in Astoria will not decrease. Reviving the W, he said, “certainly has been discussed; no decision has been made.” That the MTA already has yellow and black W roll signs and route bullets in the BMT rolling stock is probably telling, but no decision has to be made until a few months before the Second Ave. Subway opens — which at best means next summer will be the deadline for the W’s rebirth.

While it’s always comforting for Astorians to hear that their subway service will not be worse off once the Second Ave. Subway opens, Beja’s article delves into the ins and outs of re-signing the system for a new service. In these paragraphs are some gems:

As far as communicating the W’s return, the MTA has already budgeted for new signs and maps once the Second Avenue Subway goes online. It shouldn’t create extra confusion or costs to make other changes at the same time.

John Montemarano, director of station signage since 1994 and an MTA employee of 35 years, has seen the birth of the W, V and Second Avenue Subway, as well as the death of the W, V and No. 9. Other lines have shrunk, grown and changed because of ridership shifts, budget changes, the 9/11 attacks and Sandy damage. Now, new stations are being finished along Second Avenue and the No. 7 line.

If the MTA adds or revives a line, Montemarano said he would need about four months to get the transit system ready. It would take that long for the 48 workers in his department to survey the stations, design signs, check their accuracy and then create signs in the Brooklyn shop that would be loaded into trains to carry them to each station for installation. A small station would need about 60 new signs, while a larger station like 34th Street-Herald Square will need closer to 800. Small circular decals cost about $5 to make up, while bigger signs can be upwards of $200.

This is a glimpse inside a bureaucracy at work, but there’s also a quote from Richard Barone at the RPA that highlights how cumbersome this four-month lead time for a service change can be. While the signage team says they have these types of changes “down to a science,” Transit has been loathe to experiment with different routing at different times a day. “In some ways,” Barone said, “I wish the MTA would play around with services more, sort of experiment with service changes more.”

With the need to bring online some new service in a year and a half, the MTA has a chance to play around with services. They could run the W through the Montague St. Tunnel and down 4th Ave. to Bay Parkway as supplemental local service. They could restore express service to the N while running the W local or use the W as an express in Manhattan with the N local. This is a great time to assess changing transit patterns and customer needs along a stretch of line many consider to be underserved right now. We’ll find out if the MTA’s hulking bureaucracy can think creatively for a few months as the W — or something similar — returns.

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It’s no secret that the MTA has long struggled with opening dates for their capital projects. From staircase replacement projects to supposedly normal state-of-good-repair work like the Culver Viaduct rehabilitation to the 18 month-and-counting drama at the site of the 7 line’s future 34th St. terminus, the MTA simply cannot deliver on time. Whether it’s due to union featherbedding, contractor corruption, or the complexity of large-scale infrastructure work, the problem affects the agency’s credibility and New Yorkers’ collective ability to enjoy a subway system.

Along the Far West Side, the MTA’s troubles with getting the 7 line extension past the finish line and more comical than anything else. No one lives there yet so lives haven’t been disrupted and promises that were broken were made originally only to convention goers. The real estate interests constructing the Hudson Yards development will have their subway long before the buildings are complete.

The Upper East Side though is a horse of a different color. The MTA originally hoped to finish Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway in 2011 and then planned for a mid-2015 debut. As early as 2009, the agency had to push back the projected completion date to 2016 with a threat that work would continue into 2017. For Upper East Side residents who have lived with construction for nearly a decade already, further delays now would be infuriating.

Meanwhile, in 2009 and again in 2011, the Federal Transit Administration disputed the MTA’s timeline. While the agency pledged to open the $4.4 billion Phase 1 project by the end of 2016, the feds viewed a $5.5 billion extension opening in early 2018 as the most likely scenario. Over the past five years, the MTA has doubled down on the 2016 date while New Yorkers, rightfully skeptical of the lessons learned (or not learned, as the case may be) from the 7 line, still aren’t surprised by the feds’ timeline.

Yesterday, in prepared remarks first identified by Andrew Siff of NBC 4 and later in questions posed by the House Oversight Committee, FTA officials first doubled down on the 2018 timeline but then later walked it back. Federal officials acknowledged that the MTA’s 2016 revenue service date is achievable, but both the MTA and FTA seemed to agree tacitly that it will take a concerted oversight effort by agency officials to realize this earlier date.

The FTA’s pre-printed statement is decidedly less optimistic than the FTA’s subsequent comments during the hearing. Matthew Welbes, executive direct of the Federal Transit Administration, had this to say in his prepared remarks [pdf]:

In February 2015, FTA and the MTA executed an amended FFGA for the Second Avenue Subway Phase I project reflecting the changes in cost and schedule to the project. The amended FFGA includes a cost of $5.57 billion, and a revenue service date of February 28, 2018. As in the original FFGA, the amount of Federal Capital Investment Grant funding remains unchanged, with the local project sponsor covering the cost overruns.

In government-speak, that paragraph means the Full Funding Grant Agreement between the FTA and MTA acknowledged significantly higher costs and a delayed opening date. The MTA — or in this case, New York State — will foot the bill on cost overruns.

During subsequent question by Rep. Carolyn Maloney, Welbes walked back some of the FTA’s statements. When asked about the differing timelines, he provided the following explanation:

“When we executed the revised Full Funding Grant agreement in March, the schedule is that the project is supposed to open by by February of 2018. And that was based on what we agreed to with the MTA. If the MTA can deliver the project sooner, we would be proud to see that happen. It looks like the project is trending, based on our data, toward an opening of closer to, maybe early in, sometime in 2017. So the truth is probably somewhere between December of 2016 and our February of 2018 opening date. If the MTA does some of the aggressive schedule management steps that they have planned, they may very well achieve that December date.”

A revenue service start date early in 2017 wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for the MTA. True, the feds’ outcome means a 30-block, $5.5-billion subway that takes nearly a decade to construct. True, those costs are higher, on a per mile basis, than any other comparable project. But for the MTA, a delay of only a few months would represent a significant improvement over its experiences on the West Side.

The MTA in response, meanwhile, defended its own timeline. “?The MTA reports our projections for megaproject cost and completion every month based on our own understanding of the work done so far and our best estimates of the work still to be done,” the agency said in a statement. They insist that the Second Ave. Subway’s first riders will be able to ride a 96th Street-bound Q train before the year is out.

For her part, Rep. Maloney urged the FTA and MTA to find a way to get this project completed by the end of next year. “I think,” she said, “that would build up a lot of credibility by everyone.” That’s no small point considering the MTA’s lobbying for nearly $15 billion in additional capital spending right now, but the concern is a missed deadline. Do you believe the MTA or the feds? And what happens when the Second Ave. Subway doesn’t open by the end of December of 2016? It’s a future no one wants to contemplate but one that isn’t too far off right now.

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Photos from late May show the current progress on the Second Ave. Subway. The MTA says the project more than 80 percent completed and will open in December of 2016. (Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit)

Despite the ongoing drama with the 7 line extension — the MTA now anticipates opening the 34th St. station in September or October, 21 or 22 months late — the agency continues to push the party line that the Second Ave. Subway will open by the end of December of 2016. A recent media tour of the construction site revealed significant progress, and the MTA says the project is 82.3% completed. Still, Upper East Side residents I’ve spoken with are skeptical as the work has been marked by constant missed deadlines and broken promises.

Meanwhile, across the East River in Queens, Astoria residents are beginning to take notice of the looming completion of Phase 1 of this project, and they’re worried. When the MTA first unveiled plans for the Second Ave. Subway, it was billed as a northward extension of the Q train from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. via preexisting tunnel to 63rd St. and new tunnel underneath 2nd Ave. This was 11 years ago when the W split the Queens load with the N train, and extending the Q north would have no affect on service to and from Astoria.

Since then, the W has gone the way of the dodo and the Q serves a vital part-time link for Astoria subway riders. In fact, the BMT trains from Queens have seen massive growth over the past decade, and residents and politicians alike have called for more frequent service, especially during off-peak and weekend hours. Thus, the threat of a Q train service diversion has many nervous. Today, Dan Rivoli, the new Daily News transit beat writer, and Chris Sommerfeldt delved into this issue and for some reason, the MTA played its cards awfully close to its chest. The two write:

In diverting the Q line to the East Side, NYC Transit has not decided if the N can handle riders in Astoria “or if there will need to be trains added,” according to an email obtained by the Daily News. The email was sent to at least two riders who inquired to the MTA about Q service in Queens by Joseph O’Donnell, outreach director for the megaproject.

MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz stressed the transit agency is not planning a service cut. “While the route letters may change, and exactly what will happen hasn’t been determined yet, we have no plans to reduce service on the Astoria or any other line,” Ortiz said…

Sen. Michael Gianaris of Astoria said that while the MTA’s assurances sound good, he wants to make sure capacity on the Astoria train lines is maintained. But given the crowds of waiting commuters he sees from his district office, “what they really should be doing is increasing service,” he said.

As Rivoli and Sommerfeldt’s person-on-the-street interviewees note in the article, a service cut for Astoria seems ludicrous, and the MTA has maintained since eliminating the W in 2010 that the Second Ave. Subway opening would not lead to less service for Astoria. Still, I can see why some people in Queens may be unsettled by the MTA’s less-than-comforting remarks. At some point soon, the MTA should announce that some version of the W will return with part-time service into Astoria, and the MTA should consider restoring N express service in Manhattan during peak hours as well. For now, we don’t know what the service patterns will be, but in less than a year and a half we will. It should bring comfort to Queens even if the question remains unsettled for now.

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The wacky font at 63rd St. and Lexington is the first glimpse of the tiling for the Second Ave. Subway. (Via MTA)

The wacky font at 63rd St. and Lexington is the first glimpse of the tiling for the Second Ave. Subway. (Via MTA)

As far as bargaining chips the MTA can use for leverage in discussions over capital funding, the MTA’s options are few and far between. Short of kidnapping a bunch of customers and hiding them in the station shell at South 4th Street, MTA officials can only make noises about potential options. We heard about steep fare hikes yesterday, but those aren’t the only trump cards the agency can play. How about big-ticket capital projects?

During the same press conference at which he promised not to raise fares to delivery capital funding to the cash-strained MTA, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about what may need to go in the capital plan if funding doesn’t materialize, and of course, the namesake of my site came up. As part of the five-year spending plan, the MTA has requested $1.5 billion for the Second Ave. Subway. This line-item isn’t without controversy as the MTA hasn’t put a dollar figure on Phase 2 in over decade and wants a large sum for initial construction set to begin in the last year of the proposed five-year plan.

Still, the MTA knows the Second Ave. Subway won’t cost less than $1.5 billion, and the agency needs this money to keep momentum going. When Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway opens, the rest of the East Side will clamor for more segments of this line. It’s going to be that much of a game-changer for people that this phased approach is likely to be viewed as a mistake (if it already isn’t).

But as is the MTA’s wont with in-demand projects, the Second Ave. Subway makes for a potential liability and lever. In speaking on the impact of no funding solution earlier this week, Tom Prendergast said, as Capital New York reported, that future phases of the project could be “put on hold.” Isn’t that exactly what Sheldon Silver wanted when he forced the MTA to break one subway line into quarters?

The MTA can’t really afford not to build out more of the Second Ave. Subway. After all, phase two northward to Harlem and 125th St. is the part that will truly alleviate capacity constraints along the Lexington Ave. line. But threatening the future of the Second Ave. Subway is indeed something the MTA can do. Much like Prendergast or his underlings can discuss fare hikes, so too can the MTA boss talk about putting capital projects on hold. The more he discusses this in the context of Albany, the clearer it becomes that someone is responsible for holding up discussions surrounding badly-needed subway extension plans. I don’t love using the Second Ave. Subway as a bargaining chit, but if it forces legislators to the table as the days tick by, that’s better than the alternative.

Meanwhile, to show progress and perhaps to force a reckoning over this capital funding issue, the MTA released a series of photos from inside the Second Ave. Subway construction area. The agency maintains that the new stations will open for revenue service by the end of December of 2016. That gives the agency a full 20 months from today to realize this goal. The clock is ticking, and the delays at 34th St. and 11th Ave. along the 7 line loom large. Click through for some photos and check out the full set in this PDF presentation. Read More→

The Second Ave. Subway station at 86th St. is beginning to look like a real subway stop. What happens with Phase 2 is anyone’s guess. (Photo: MTA Capital Construction / Rehema Trimiew)

Earlier on Wednesday, while browsing MTA news, I came across an interesting AP piece published on Crain’s New York with quite the inflammatory headline. “Why the Second Ave. subway could be delayed—again” the article said. With news of delays on the 7 line extension — this month due to emergency radios, last time due to elevators, escalators and vent plans — my first thought was that the December 2016 revenue service date was just a mirage. As I read closer, though, I realized this was about the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway and not the current one.

Phase 1 of the long-aborning subway — north from 57th St. and 7th Ave. to 96th St. and 2nd Ave. — is fully funded. Work may stretch into next year, but the money is in place. At this point, the only delays will arise if (or perhaps when) the MTA can’t get the project across the finish line, and those won’t come into view for another 18-20 months. Phase 2, despite a lack of concrete price tag, was included in the 2015-2019 capital plan, and as we know, that capital plan remains very much a work in progress.

Earlier on Wednesday during the MTA Board meeting, agency head Tom Prendergast spoke about the affect a lack of funding could have on expansion plans. It’s a good 18 months until the MTA has to face this reality, and in the past, New York has come up with interim measures to keep capital programs moving on a two- or three-year basis. But the threat of a work slowdown at a time when the city is finally re-learning how to build new subway lines looms large.

Benjamin Mueller of The Times summarized the state of the capital program with the funding picture hazy at best:

The chairman of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Wednesday sought to reassure New Yorkers that the agency would secure the necessary funding to forestall what transit experts were warning about — a slump in service, overflowing subway trains and more frequent delays. The sense of alarm has been occasioned by a $15 billion gap in the agency’s five-year capital plan, which is meant to finance long-sought repairs and improvements to the city’s transit system. Transit officials and elected leaders are currently in discussions about how to fill that gap or, alternatively, to pare down costs.

But the authority’s chairman, Thomas F. Prendergast, warned that future stages of major construction plans and renovations for the overtaxed system were at risk if officials were unable to come to an agreement. The full five-year plan calls for $32 billion.

“For a period of time, maybe a year or two, we’re O.K.,” Mr. Prendergast said after a board meeting. “But as you start to get down that path, we get to the point where if we don’t have money we can’t award design contracts, we can’t award construction projects.”

We could quibble for hours over whether the “or, alternatively” at the end of the firs excerpted paragraph should just said “and,” but the truth remains that the capital plan funding question is very much up in the air. Already a long, drawn-out affair, the Second Ave. Subway could very much be a casualty of politicking and lukewarm support for transit from the Governor.

Meanwhile, the Mayor went to Albany and did a great imitation of the pot calling the kettle black “”The State must do more to fund the MTA’s capital plan – a situation that is reaching crisis levels,” Bill de Blasio said. “The current MTA capital plan is woefully underfunded. The State’s investment has steadily declined over the last 14 years.”

So too, de Blasio declined to mention, has the city’s investment. They contribute the paltry sum of $100 million a year to a multi-billion-dollar capital plan, and de Blasio has proposed trimming that figure by 60 percent. Transit advocates, such as the Straphangers Campaign, were not impressed. “We need the Citiy’s leadership to press the State to do much better for the MTA’s millions of riders,” Gene Russianoff said in a statement.

There are only so many times we can say the same thing about the capital plan, but it’s hard to underscore the needs. The subways are more crowded that ever, and to keep up with demand, the system has to be able to sustain more frequent service in more areas. With the billions of dollars requested, the alternative is a scary one indeed.