When I was in Berlin last month, I stayed close to Unter den Linden, a wide boulevard that connects the former East Berlin to Museum Island and runs through the Brandenburg Gate where it becomes Strasse des 17. Juni as it passes through the Tiergarten. It’s a wide boulevard, and it’s the site of the German capital’s own transit megaproject. For €433 million, Berlin is building a 2.2-kilometer, 3-station U-Bahn extension that will finally join the U-5 with its U-55 progeny. Much like New York City, Berlin has had some issues delivering on-time projects, and this one is set to wrap in 2019. Still, the price is very, very right.
In New York City, meanwhile, the MTA maybe might open the 7 line extension — all $2.4 billion worth of it — before the end of the third quarter of 2015, but a City Council hearing today, MTA officials noted that the project could be delayed until October. The MTA is beginning dispatch training and teaching train operators how to run 7 trains from Times Square to 34th St., but the opening date won’t be announced for “several weeks,” according to MTA Capital Construction head Michael Horodniceanu. “We are in the final 50-yard sprint of this project,” he said.
The timeline is almost besides the point. The MTA is getting a little bit more track than Berlin and two fewer stations for nearly six times the cost. It’s stunningly disproportionate, and the 7 line isn’t alone. It’s not the most expensive subway project in the world on a per-mile basis because the 2nd Ave. Subway is. (The costs decrease a bit on a per-passenger basis, but the MTA’s cost scales are inexplicably high.) The MTA doesn’t talk much about these high costs and, tangentially, their inability to deliver anything on time, but well-positioned politicians have taken note of these issues.
On Monday, in an attempt to convince the City Council to up its contributions to the MTA’s underfunded capital plan, agency CEO and Chairman Tom Prendergast faced a sometimes-provincial, sometimes-on point City Council. After clearly laying out the agency’s financial issues, Prendergast heard from some council members who demanded, without funding, as Ydanis Rodriguez did, a subway from 207th Street in Manhattan to Fordham or from those who don’t understand that capacity increases require investment in the form of hundreds of millions of dollars to implement CBTC. (Ryan Hutchins at Capital New York summed up the hearings.)
But Prendergast, hat in hand, also faced some witheringly accurate criticism regarding the MTA’s project management skills. A certain line of argument came from Corey Johnson, the council member who represents the Hudson Yards area. Noting the 7 line extension delays, Johnson said, “It doesn’t inspire confidence” in the MTA’s ability to pull off large-scale projects. He didn’t even discuss costs (as expected since costs can be esoteric and don’t make for great sound costs).
All in all though, this gets us to the MTA’s credibility gap. We know they can’t manage costs, and we’ve seen how they manage timelines. Every few weeks, the opening date for the 7 line extension has been pushed back so that, if revenue service begins in October, it will have been 22 months since Mayor Bloomberg’s ceremonial first ride. Meanwhile, the agency continues to insist the Second Ave. Subway will open in December of 2016, and the P.R. blowback if they miss that date will be tremendous.
Overall, the MTA’s problem is one that affects its allies too. I want to argue vociferously for the MTA Capital Plan, but the agency needs to get out in front of these cost and time management issues. They have to assuage critics and proponents alike that they (a) recognize the problem and (b) are working to resolve it. Why does the Second Ave. Subway cost orders of magnitude more than similar projects throughout the developed world? We don’t know, but the MTA should be working its collective tail off trying to lower costs for future phases. Instead, their funding request includes $1.5 billion for a Phase 2 build-out with an indeterminate budget. That does not, as Johnson said, inspire confidence.
There’s no doubt the MTA needs funding for the capital program. The alternative is bad service and high fares without technological advancements. But until the MTA can be efficient with its spending and deliver projects on time, politicians will have arrows in their quivers they can use at will. And can you really blame them?