The MTA’s capital plan may be considered something of a mess. For $25 billion – give or take a few billion – every five years, the MTA embarks on a steady stream of expansion and rehabilitation projects. Sure, new construction efforts cost far too much, and sure, nothing seems to be completed on time. But the capital program, born out of the system’s 1970s nadir, isn’t going anywhere. It’s too important to the city, its subway riders and its construction lobby.
Of course, the capital plan isn’t perfect. I can’t overstate how project costs and construction pace have hindered rapid subway expansion, and the MTA is constantly fighting for the dollars it so desperately needs. It’s clear from even cursory glances around the system that the remains elusive. Additionally, as the capital plan has lately been funded through a series of bond issues, the MTA’s dept payment obligations have increased rapidly over the last decade.
The perpetual stream of funding for capital dollars though is not something we should take for granted. Despite the frustrations we often feel toward Albany, someone had the foresight to put such a plan in place. If we turn our eye to the south, we find in Washington, D.C., an agency held hostage by two states, the District of Columbia and the federal government with a clear need for maintenance and expansion but no real plan to pay for any of it.
Earlier on Thursday, WMATA unveiled a new strategic plan called Momentum which includes a modest expansion of the Metro system, some long-awaited transfer tunnels between the Farragut stations and between Gallery Place and Metro Center and, finally, some express tracks along certain routes. Total expenditures would add up to approximately $1 billion a year through 2040, low by New York’s standards but high nonetheless. There’s a catch though: No one knows how these plans will be funded.
Dana Hedgpeth of The Washington Post delves into the funding issue. She writes:
Dubbed “Momentum,” and 18 months in the making, Metro’s new strategic plan catalogues the system’s needs and renews the long-standing argument for Metro to have a dedicated funding source, just as many big-city transit systems do. Metro’s lack of capital investment in the past decade has been blamed on that lack of dedicated funding, and planners say that unless that changes, there is little hope of executing the ambitious strategic plan that will be formally unveiled Thursday.
A new Metro line is being built in Northern Virginia, but it is being constructed for Metro by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, with revenue from the Dulles Toll Road financing a significant part of the line’s $5.6 billion cost.
No such obvious source of financing exists for the new rail line and tunnels proposed in Metro’s new strategic plan, and the plan does not specify how the agency would finance the rail expansion and other costly improvements….Unlike other transit agencies in New York, Boston and Los Angeles that depend on some level of dedicated funds from specific taxes, Metro receives contributions from the District, Maryland, Virginia and the federal government for its operating and capital budgets, which total $2.5 billion. Shyam Kannan, Metro’s chief planner, said it will take a “reliable, sustained stream of capital funding from a combination of local and federal” moneys to pay for the slew of proposed projects.
Metro is nearing its maximum capacity, and at some point, the region’s planners and politicians will have to address that prickly issue. If D.C. is to grow, its subway system must grow as well, but without a steady source of funding, that growth is never a sure thing.
Here in New York, we argue for more funding. We argue for direct contributions instead of debt financing, and we argue for more subsidies for the operations budget. Although our system is still struggling to overcome decades of deferred maintenance, a plan, no matter how tough to realize, exists. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact, but it’s one we should not take for granted. After all, it could always be worse: The MTA could be the protect of four governments all with their own political viewpoints, interests and financial endgoals at stake.