Home Capital Program 2010-2014 A capital investment, but in what?

A capital investment, but in what?

by Benjamin Kabak

A few weeks ago, the MTA unveiled its next five-year capital plan. They did so a few months earlier than usual with the idea that the public would have ample time to comment on the plans and offer some feedback. Already, politicians are angling for capital projects, and this lobbying raises some interesting transit-related questions.

Today’s story of politicos looking for money — what else do they do anyway? — comes to us from Queens. According to NY1 News, a few Queens politicians want the MTA to rehab the J/Z elevated structure:

Queens council member Elizabeth Crowley and Senator Joseph Addabo Junior called on the state Monday to approve the MTA’s four-year capital plan, which includes restoring and repainting the structure that runs above Jamaica Avenue in Woodhaven.

“This train station serves a major purpose for our people. It’s been deteriorating and it has been deteriorating since I was a kid. It’s important to get it fixed,” Addabo said.

“I firmly believe once this is repainted it will attract more businesses to Jamaica Avenue, mores shoppers and overall economic growth,” Crowley said.

Addabbo and Crowley say existing structures should get priority over new MTA projects.

It’s that last line that is key to Addabbo and Crowley’s little headline-grabbing press conference. Of course, the elevation Jamaica Ave. structure in Woodhaven needs some work. Which above-ground subway lines, after all, are in good condition? None that I can think of.

But that last statement makes me wonder about the MTA’s priorities and the ways in which city residents see those priorities. I live in Park Slope in Brooklyn. I take the Q on a regular basis, but when it heads past 57th St. and curls north to Second Ave., I won’t notice. I’ll still ride it just to Chinatown or Midtown. Meanwhile, the Q station I use — at 7th Ave. and Flatbush Ave. — is a mess. There aren’t enough seats. There aren’t enough garbage cans. The closed staircases to a now-neglected mezzanine are used as bathrooms by homeless wanderers.

When push comes to shove, the vast majority of New Yorkers won’t derive much of a benefit from the Second Ave. Subway, the 7 Line Extension or the East Side Access project. We will, however, see our stations deteriorate — or collapse — and we will see our system age.

As the MTA faces the reality of a capital plan that is facing a $10 billion budget gap, the agency may have to make some uncomfortable choices. It may have to choose between funding some projects and neglecting others. Should, as Addabbo and Crowley say, the MTA give priority to existing structures over new projects? That state of good repair looms large over our subways.

In the end, reality is far from this simple. It never is easy. The MTA has to invest money in its currently aging infrastructure, but it also has to keep an eye toward an expanding city that is maxing out the capacity of its subway system. The MTA has to build its mega-projects, and it has to keep asking for money for these mega-projects. We need a system in good repair, but we need a system that can adequately meet the demands of the city as well.

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17 comments

Cap'n Transit August 26, 2009 - 12:45 am

Addabbo and Crowley should be pushing for that money to be redirected from road projects like the BQE reconstruction, not from other transit projects.

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Benjamin Kabak August 26, 2009 - 12:48 am

I’m torn. On the one hand, I’d much rather see transit investment than road investment in New York. It doesn’t make any sense to invest in NYC roads at the expense of transit. On the other hand, something has to be done about the BQE. It’s a disaster. Unless the city just dismantles it, they are stuck investing in it.

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Kid Twist August 26, 2009 - 9:35 am

The M doesn’t run over Jamaica Avenue.

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AlexB August 26, 2009 - 9:41 am

Anything about a new third track on the J line? That would be a nice thing to inculde on any rehab.

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Josh Karpoff August 26, 2009 - 10:01 am

While most New Yorker’s won’t see any benefit from the East Side Access project, commuters from Long Island, the northern suburbs and even Jersey will see a huge improvement. There are several hundred thousand people using GCT and Penn everyday and the overcrowding at Penn is becoming a massive problem. Shifting passenger load to GCT will help a huge amount. It will also provide a few slots each hour for Hudson Line MNRR trains to enter Penn during rush hour, which would simplify many commuters’ trips, such as my dad’s (Hudson Line to GCT to walk over to 48th and 11th Ave.). However, if the load on the Lexington Ave. line isn’t relieved by the SAS, then when ESA comes online, there’s not going to be anywhere to put most of those folks who want to go downtown.

I do think that the #7 extension is pretty silly, but the City is paying for almost all of it, not the MTA. The MTA couldn’t use that money for something else, even if it wanted to.

Which is also the problem with the federal funding for the ESA and SAS, they can use it for those projects or they can’t use it all. That’s actually one of the ways the the construction on the SAS in the 70’s ground to a halt: they took the construction money and spent it on operating expenses.

Having looked at the Capital Plan, I can say that the money for the continued overhaul of MNRR’s Harmon Shops (the equivalent of the NYCT’s Coney Island Shops in scale and function) is desperately needed. The buildings are original from the turn of the 20th century in the glory days of the NYCRR. It’s hard to work on modern rail equipment when the building is falling apart all around you.

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Jerrold August 26, 2009 - 8:11 pm

The #7 Line extension would NOT be so silly if they had kept the 10th Ave./41st St. station in the plans. Even if that meant taking a few more years to build it at the level of annual funding available, that’s what should have been done.

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Marc Shepherd August 26, 2009 - 12:08 pm

Anything about a new third track on the J line? That would be a nice thing to inculde on any rehab.

The Jamaica third track is not on any of the MTA’s “maybe, someday” lists. The Williamsburg Bridge is the agency’s least-used East River crossing, and compared to other lines the J/M/Z are not particularly over-crowded. Even the sections of the line that already have express tracks are not fully utilized.

In short, there are many transit projects a lot more pressing than adding a third Jamaica Line track. It also doesn’t really qualify as a “while you’re at it” project, as the effort involved is much different than merely rehabilitating the existing structure.

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Andrew August 26, 2009 - 9:01 pm

One could argue that operating a Jamaica express – which would require a third track – would relieve pressure on the Queens Boulevard line, and the E in particular.

Mind you, I’m not making that argument – personally, I doubt it would have much of an impact on the E. And it would be quite expensive, as the island platforms along Fulton Street would all need to be relocated. Also, there are two all-stop (J/Z) stations along that stretch – Woodhaven Boulevard and Cypress Hills. They’d need to be configured as express stations in order to provide them with adequate service and not to overload the local. Come to think of it, even with those two stations as express stations, the locals would still probably be more crowded than the expresses.

But I could be wrong.

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Alon Levy August 27, 2009 - 10:16 am

More importantly, the J/M/Z goes to Lower Manhattan, a smaller business district than Midtown. That’s why it doesn’t relieve congestion on the L, either.

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Andrew August 27, 2009 - 10:21 pm

Obviously, E passengers bound for Midtown wouldn’t use the J/Z. But E passengers bound for Lower Manhattan – and there are many (either they stay on the E all the way down or they transfer to the 6 and then to the 4/5) – might be more inclined to shift to the J/Z if there were an express.

I’m not sure what you’re getting at with the L. The busiest part of the line is west of the transfer points to the J/Z and the M. And the transfer point to the J/Z also happens to be the transfer point to the A/C, which is a faster route to Lower Manhattan than the J/Z (and possibly even a faster route to Midtown than the L – I’m not sure). Somebody commuting to Manhattan from, say, Montrose Avenue is going to take the L into Manhattan and transfer there, if necessary, to the appropriate north-south line.

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AlexB August 28, 2009 - 11:27 am

I was referring to “Tomorrow’s Transit” that the RPA put out a while ago, which I hope someone at the MTA has to read. They recommended a third track on the J line as a cheap, short term way to improve transit to downtown. Supposedly, a large portion of it east of Cypress Hills was built to accomodate a third track, which could be built relatively cheaply because of this foresight.

The area from Cypress Hills to Bway Junction was only built for two tracks. Bway Junction to Marcy already has three tracks. Supposedly, if you run some J trains express, and they skip some of the stops along the two track portion, you can make it from Jamaica to Fulton st in 9 stops and 35 minutes, a bit faster than the LIRR to downtown Brooklyn + transfer to the subway. The eastern Queens to downtown commuters would be the obvious beneficiaries of this new route, but there would be benefits to anyone traveling to Chinatown, the LES, Williamsburg, etc from Queens.

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Andrew August 29, 2009 - 10:14 pm

There is no possible way that this proposed express run would cut a 50-minute trip by 15 minutes, despite the RPA’s dreams. Sorry.

For the people who currently ride the line, service would be substantially worse (less frequent, more crowded, and prone to merging delays with the express). And I doubt the express would attract many new riders.

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john August 26, 2009 - 1:42 pm

As someone who stands to gain virtually no benefit from the project, I do think the Second Avenue line is absolutely necessary for the upper east side. There just is no more capacity on Lexington Avenue, period, and it’s crazy that that area has gone with only one subway line since the fifties.

That said, I definitely do hope that in a few centuries once they finish it, that they move all the money they would have gone to new contstruction to rebuilding the present system and restoring it entirely to a state of good repair. It seems like if they don’t, the general deterioration of everything will if anything accelerate as the system heads into its second century.

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Woody August 26, 2009 - 3:29 pm

If federal transit funding were adequate, we wouldn’t be in this awful bind. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough money in the transit pot. And the feds dole it out with an effective cap of “not so much to any one project that it takes all the money” that brings the federal share of our projects down to 25% or 35% or so.

The NYC area has three huge projects — the Second Avenue Subway, the East Side Access, the Jersey Transit thing, Journey to the Earth’s Core or what’s it called. (Not to mention the #7 extension and assorted other smaller projects.) And so each of these three megaprojects has a federal share that works out at far less than half the cost of building them. If the feds were paying 50%, or better 60%, or best the 80% of 90% they do for highway stuff, then the MTA, the City of New York, the State of New York, and the Port Authority of NY and NJ would have much more money to put behind other projects, even repair and maintenance.

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Noah August 26, 2009 - 5:04 pm

First the Q terminates at 57th.

Well I think the real problem is American culture. This is the same problem we have with health care that most developed countries don’t have. In our culture we live by the golden rule “If it aint broke, don’t fix it”. Essentially we have no concept of real maintenance, now yes for the NYC subway system we have a major problem, as it runs 24×7 it is hard to ever find times to do regular maintenance. It’s cheaper to keep things in working order than repairing things that are broken. If we switched to the idea of preventative maintenance we would be able to have more funds available to actually expand the system. Currently the development in the system that does exist is too Manhattan centric and projects like the Second Ave projects shouldn’t be considered a mega project. A mega project would be filling in all of the wholes in the system where there is no reliable transportation other than buses.

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Streetsblog New York City » Today’s Headlines August 27, 2009 - 9:20 am

[…] Will Albany Fund the MTA Enough to Maintain and Expand Our Transit System? (News, 2nd Ave Sagas) […]

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AG May 2, 2012 - 6:01 pm

Noah – that is absolutely correct. Ppl don’t realize that operating 24/7 affects money available – as well as ability to perform maintenance/repairs. If it didn’t operate 24/7 then NY wouldn’t be NY though. Considering the amount of GDP produced in NYC and the metro area… the Feds should be willing to pay for the big projects so that we locals can pay for the day to day workings of the system.

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