The Citizens Budget Commission has joined the long line of watchdog organizations bashing the MTA for its inability to manage its capital construction program. With a new five-year plan out that currently suffers from a $10.8 billion budget gap, the CBC report criticizes the MTA for its lack of fiscal awareness and its inability to control the cost and completion schedule for its big-ticket projects.
For long-time readers of Second Ave. Sagas and for anyone who follows subway news, this report is hardly a surprise. After all, the Second Ave. Subway completion date has been pushed by nearly a decade since it was first announced, and the Fulton St. Transit Center is nearly 100 percent over budget and five or six years behind schedule. But the CBC report — available here as a PDF — is fairly stunning in its depth. On nearly every capital campaign project, the MTA has either not met costs or can’t meet its own construction timeline.
“The MTA should do a better job of managing its capital plans and be more realistic in what it promises to accomplish,” Charles Brecher, research director of the Citizens Budget Commission, said. “Now is the time to make improvements, so that the next plan is one on which the MTA can actually deliver.”
The CBC report examined nearly 800 MTA projects that totaled $18.6 billion and came away with the following conclusions as presented in its executive summary:
- The MTA Board does not provide the public, or even collect for itself, sufficient information to determine whether the projects in the five-year plan are progressing in accordance with the plan. Available reports do not cover all of the projects in the plan, do not correspond to items and categories in the plan for covered items, and do not relate consistently to project milestones other than start and completion.
- The limited information available for the projects indicates that the MTA encounters significant delays in work of all types with major problems in the mega-projects and signal and communication projects, but notable delays also in less complex work such as the replacement of subway cars. Of the five mega-projects, only the South Ferry Terminal has progressed substantially in accordance with the schedule; three others are delayed by at least one year, and the Fulton Street Transit Center is currently set for completion in 2014, five years behind schedule…
- Many projects are completed close to the initial cost estimates, but cost estimates are problematic for some mega-projects, and some important signal and communication projects are seriously over budget. The cost of the Fulton Street Transit Center is nearly 90 percent above the initial estimate, and the South Ferry terminal is 24 percent above the initial estimate…Communication projects with large cost increases include Automatic Train Supervision (35 percent), customer information service on the Canarsie Line (55 percent), and computer-based train control on the Canarsie Line (51 percent).
The report highlights many of the projects I have followed over the last three years. In addition to the big-ticket items, the CBC notes that the roll-out of train information boards and an improved public address system along the A Division lines is now four years behind schedule. Even some new rolling stock orders were delayed by eight months.
To solve the problem, the CBC issued three recommendations:
- The MTA should commit to an improved management information system for tracking capital projects and to greater transparency in informing the public about the status of its capital projects. The public should know how its money is being used. More information should be assembled centrally, it should be kept in a consistent format with clear milestones for assessing progress, and it should be made publicly available on the MTA’s website.
- The MTA should improve its capacity to manage mega-projects and improvements in signaling and communication systems. These are the areas of greatest delays and cost increases, and they account for large sums in the proposed five- year capital plan. New procedures and an expanded pool of personnel with relevant expertise are urgently needed within the agency.
- The next five-year plan should be based on a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished. At the end of the 2000-2004 plan fully 365 projects costing over $4.8 billion, or more than one-quarter of the total plan, had not reached the stage expected when the plan was approved. Much of the work undertaken during the 2005-2007 period examined was for projects in the previous five-year plan. It is likely that a similar proportion of the work included in the current 2005-2009 plan will have to be extended into future years. The new plan for 2010-2014 should be more realistic in anticipating the new work that can be accomplished and the funding needed to support it.
It’s almost surprising that it took the CBC two years to release this report. After all, a quick glance at the MTA’s website reveals that information is scare. For example, the page detailing construction progress for the 7 line extension hasn’t been updated since November 2008. That’s hardly informative.
For their part, the MTA said that they are working on the issues of transparency. “Today the MTA previewed an online dashboard that will provide the public with clear, updated information about all of the projects in the upcoming capital program,” MTA Spokesman Jeremy Soffin said.“For the first time, you’ll be able to search by project type, line or station to find out exactly where construction stands, why the work is necessary and whether it is on budget. The dashboard will be available online by the end of the year. We look forward to engaging with the Citizens Budget Commission and others in the ongoing public discussion on the MTA’s critical capital program.”
That dashboard would be a great step in the right direction for the MTA. There is but one question about it: Can the agency deliver it to the public on time?