While the Bush Administration doesn’t have many fans in the New York area, without the Federal Transit Administration, an arm of the federal Department of Transportation, the current MTA capital plan would be flailing for funding. The FTA is footing the bill for a significant portion of the Second Ave. Subway and the LIRR East Side Access plan, among other non-MTA projects in the area.
But the FTA chief had a warning for New York City yesterday: Don’t count on that funding to continue forever. Speaking in the City for the first time since the congestion pricing defeat earlier this week, James S. Simpson, the FTA chief, criticized Assembly Democrats for what he called the “disappointing” and “short-sighted” decision to kill congestion pricing. At the same time, he warned city leaders that the FTA’s money source — the Highway Trust Fund — is running low.
“It’s hard to imagine we’re going to be able to make any real progress without trying new things, like congestion pricing, high-speed electronic tolling and public-private partnerships that shift some of the costs and risks involved in designing, building and operating transit systems to the private sector,” he said, according to Patrick Arden’s story in Metro.
But while that sounds like something of a vague threat, City Room had more detailed comments from Simpson:
“All of these projects are tremendously important, but they pose significant challenges going forward. First, only a limited number of firms have the capacity required to bid and construct these projects. That raises concerns for us about limited competition, which has implications for how jobs are priced. Second, we’re concerned about how difficult it is to create accurate cost and performance estimates for these complicated, multiyear transit projects, given the continued escalation of commodity prices. The risk of underestimating costs — and incurring additional debt obligations — is very real. And third, we’re concerned — and the region’s business and political leadership should also be concerned — about the massive new transportation projects on the horizon — including the Tappan Zee bridge, a new Lower Manhattan rail link and the second phase of the Second Avenue subway. Are there sufficient resources and capacity available to see these projects through?”
New York, it seems, can no longer expect the Feds to help out the budget deficit.
Now, on the one hand, this is very much a matter of partisan politics, something I’ve tried to overtly avoid on this site. The Bush Administration has been rather hostile toward public transportation and would rather not see cities relying on the federal government to fund their projects.
On the other hand, a healthy urban transportation system in the New York City area is vital to our nation’s economy. As New York-centric as that sounds, it’s the truth. With a change in the White House coming in November, it’s possible that New York could find itself with a more urban-friendly and transit-friendly administration in place come 2009. At that point, the FTA may just have some more funds for us.
For now, the MTA must move forward without that safety net from the FTA. But who knows? Ten months down the road, the Feds and the City could be singing a different tune. Can we afford to wait that long?