With the celebration over, the hungover can settle in. Now I’m not talking about the Royals or the Blue Jays; those two teams are still celebrating their victories this week. Rather, I’m talking about the MTA and its capital plan. After relief over this past weekend’s surprise agreement on capital funding, we’ve had to face the reality of the MTA’s spending decisions this week. We know that everything costs too much, and no one wants to tackle cost reform. But what are we actually getting for our $28 billion?
To only kinda sorta answer my own question, we don’t know with 100% certainty what the capital plan will be. The MTA has trimmed a few billion dollars and still has to cut $700 million. There’s also a chance that Mayor Bill de Blasio will wake up tomorrow and suddenly care about transit projects in the city, thus requiring the MTA to adjust some plans for city-focused projects. That is, however, a remote likelihood, and we can lean on the previously-released proposal for a $32 billion plan for guidance.
The highlights are a bit underwhelming unfortunately. The big-ticket expansion plans involve Penn Station Access, a post-East Side Access plan being pushed by the Governor that will bring Metro-North trains into Penn Station. The proposal involves four stops in the Bronx that cost far too much, and no indication that the MTA will rationalize intra-city commuter rail fares to encourage ridership to and from the Bronx and Manhattan. It’s a fine proposal on its merits, but it needs some help.
The other big-ticket item is Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway, and I have to assume this is where the bulk of the city’s dollars will go. Unfortunately, though, this is a request for only some of the money the MTA needs for Phase 2, and the agency has been tight-lipped on how much the northern extension will cost. We likely won’t see Phase 2 open until some time in the mid-2020s, but at least the MTA is continuing with this work. Why it will take 2-3 years after Phase 1 opens to start the next segment is a question yet to be answered.
Beyond those two items, the capital money is going to bunch of technology upgrades that are long overdue. The MTA hopes to complete installation of the Help Point system, something that may or may not be a total waste of money (and I do hope to revisit that soon), and the badly-needed double-tracking project for the LIRR’s Ronkonkoma Branch will wrap. Positive Train Control will become a reality for Metro-North and the LIRR, and CBTC will become a reality for some New York City subway lines. Ideally, countdown clocks will expand to the B Division’s lettered subway lines, and as Cuomo noted this week, 1000 new subway cars — including new rolling stock for the C train — are on the way.
As far as the funding split goes, the mix tends to favor the commuter rail lines on a ridership basis, but you can make the argument that all MTA divisions need the dollars. New York City Transit will get $17 billion, the overwhelming majority of the money, but only 20 stations will be eligible for upgrades under this plan. The LIRR and Metro-North will split around $5.7 billion, but is this all even enough?
Some MTA sources I’ve spoken with wanted the agency to ask for $40 billion off the bat so the reductions would still lead to a high capital plan. Without spending reform though, money simply feeds the beast. Meanwhile, as we learned a year ago, not everyone is too enthusiastic about this plan. The CBC in particular levied harsh criticism toward the MTA for failing to provide adequate cost-benefit analyses or sufficiently prioritizing state of good repair work. Staten Islanders too don’t see much value in it.
Ultimately, the MTA has an overwhelming number of repairs to make, a finite amount of money, and systematic problems with cost control. It’s an imperfect solution, but it must go forward as the alternative is far far worse. Does it help the MTA adjust to a life where trains are crowded well out of normal peak hours and service can’t match demand? That’s hard to say, and if it doesn’t, we’re in trouble. As the money continues to flow, though, now is time for some reforms on costs. Will someone take up that mantle?