Home MTA Construction The pipe dream of future expansion projects

The pipe dream of future expansion projects

by Benjamin Kabak

It may be a while before funding materializes for future phases of the Second Avenue Subway.

Early this morning at the New York Law School, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu, president of the MTA’s Capital Construction division, spoke to a crowded room gobbling up their fruit slices and free croissants on the state of the MTA’s expansion efforts. For anyone whose been reading my site over the past few years, Horodniceanu’s presentation featured little new information. He spoke about the costs, complexities and challenges of the various big-ticket items and discussed how the MTA generates more construction jobs in the New York City area than anyone else.

Yet, despite the rather basic nature of the presentation, Horodniceanu let slip a few hints that this round of construction might be the last we see of transit expansion in and around the city, barring an unforeseen financial windfall anywhere. While speaking of the Second Ave. Subway, Horodniceanu discussed the impact Phase 1 will have and how the MTA is using the preexisting sections north of 99th St. as tail tracks. Of the future phases, he was less optimistic. “Sections two, three and four will be for our children or grandchildren,” he said with a sigh.

Later, during the Q-and-A when an audience member asked about the immediate future of the plans to extend the 7 line to Secaucus, Horodniceanu nearly dismissed it out of hand. He spoke of the engineering studies the city — not the MTA — is currently conducting but said point blank that the money isn’t there. It’s not there from the feds; it’s not there from the states of New York or New Jersey; it’s not there from the MTA. The only place I could imagine funding such a rail line would be the Port Authority, and they’re currently tapped out.

On the one hand, Horodniceanu is being politically practical here. The state hasn’t even figured out how to fund the current MTA capital plan, let alone any future ones. Why should we consider Phases 2 or 3 of the Second Ave. Subway if Phase 1 still won’t be completed for another five years? But on the other hand, Horodniceanu’s words are a bit discouraging. If transportation expansion and investment funds start to dry up by 2016, the city will likely faced stagnant growth and decaying infrastructure.

What also struck me about Horodniceanu’s words was how foolish it was to flat-out cancel the ARC Tunnel project. We’re reminded on a near-daily basis that the region is in desperate need of more trans-Hudson rail connections, and we were enjoying the perfect storm of funding, construction work and planning that would have produced ARC. Instead of reworking the project or trying to identify cost savings, Gov. Chris Christie flat-out canceled a 20-year planning effort, and it seems unlikely that a replacement will materialize within the next few years (or possibly even decades).

Enjoy the effort to expand our transit network while you can. As governments tighten their belts, increases in rail capacity will be few and far between. That’s some somber news for a Friday afternoon.

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Stephen Smith October 14, 2011 - 1:20 pm

Lemme guess – nobody asked Domnul Inginer Horodniceanu about the MTA’s ridiculously high capital costs?

Benjamin Kabak October 14, 2011 - 1:21 pm

I asked, and his unsatisfying, one-sentence answer was “work rules.” He says NYC work rules require them to overstaff projects so the same TBM work, for instance, that can be done in Spain with 9 workers must be done in NYC with 25 workers.

Stephen Smith October 14, 2011 - 1:32 pm

Wow, that’s actually a lot more detailed of a response than I would expect. I’m actually sort of impressed! (Unlike all my other comments, I’m not being sarcastic here!)

Bolwerk October 14, 2011 - 9:48 pm

…now if only we could get politicians campaigning on fixing that.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:28 pm

Somehow I’m not surprised (featherbedding work rules have been showing up as a recurring problem in NYC transportation) but pleased to see a clear answer. Next question: where do the featherbedding work rules come from? State government, city government, federal government, union contract, or simply individual construction firms?

Alon Levy October 15, 2011 - 10:42 am

Did he bring up just Spain, or also other European countries? (I’m asking because Spain is an unusually low-cost case; the France:Spain cost multiplier for subways is almost as high as the US:France multiplier.)

Adirondacker12800 October 15, 2011 - 10:27 pm

and it’s gotta be more than just those 14 sandhogs. Or even the extra flaggers and concrete truck drivers and the expensive concrete they deliver…

Stephen Smith October 14, 2011 - 1:28 pm

…also, I like how he touts the fact that “the MTA generates more construction jobs in the New York City area than anyone else,” as if it’s a point of pride rather than an indicator of communist Romania-level efficiency. As they say in Romania, we pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us! Except in the case of NYC, the pay is all too real.

BBnet3000 October 15, 2011 - 12:20 pm

Indeed, id rather that MTA keep their eye on paying ridership rather than paid construction employment. These two things arent even necessarily in conflict, seeing as savings on one project could allow them to build another, employing workers at the second project, and generating more ridership.

Marc Shepherd October 14, 2011 - 1:24 pm

It’s sad, but his pessimism sounds very realistic.

What’s interesting is that when the MTA proposed building a “stubway” (what is now Phase 1 of the SAS), it was rejected, and they spent several more years designing a full-length line. When the phasing was announced, many MTA cynics figured it was just a pretext to get themselves right back where they started, a 3-station extension of the Q line.

Well, here we are, and that’s exactly what we have: Phase 1, with no realistic prayer of the remaining phases getting started in the foreseeable future.

James October 14, 2011 - 1:51 pm

Any ideas why one or more phases of the SAS aren’t be fast tracked like they’re talking about doing for the Tappan Zee. As Obama has learned, “shovel ready” is an illusion thanks to over-regulation, but I presume the SAS is more shovel ready than most other possible projects out there.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:30 pm

Phase 2 has most of the tunnels in place already, even. Seriously, two station contracts and 2/3 of phase 2 is done. The 125th St. tunnel and station is more complicated, but why no push for “phase 2a”?

jim October 17, 2011 - 8:16 am

SAS Phases don’t need to be fast tracked through the regulatory process. They’ve already had the environmental work done and documented. The preliminary engineering is done, too. What they need is funding.

What I hope the new MTA head will do is package up the 110th St. station and/or the two stations so that if and when there’s another stimulus, they can be offered for funding.

But Phase 1 has to be convincingly on track for completion for anyone to offer to fund another station. There’s no point in building the 110th St. station if there’s no guarantee that there’ll be an existing SAS for it to extend.

Douglas John Bowen October 14, 2011 - 2:48 pm

Please, let ARC go, sir. It’s dead, and though New Jersey rail advocates were among the first to push for it in its original scope and intent, we don’t buy the idea that we should pay an ever-higher price for an ARC with ever-less utility. We pleaded for “reworking” for almost a decade, without getting anyone’s attention. We got their attention only when Gov. Christie–regrettably, it’s true–pulled the plug, and then only to be assigned blame by those who wouldn’t listen. Let it go, sir. It’s dead.

Benjamin Kabak October 14, 2011 - 2:49 pm

No offense, but you missed the point if that’s your reaction here.

I understand that ARC is dead, but so is any chance of a cross-Hudson rail tunnel anytime within the next few decades. That’s what was lost, not just a tunnel that had design flaws.

Douglas John Bowen October 14, 2011 - 3:02 pm

No offense taken, but one project corpse doesn’t automatically translate into “all is woe” and doom and gloom–though I do take your point that progress may be slower (if not halted) in the foreseeable future. Still, few of us can foresee all the pieces moving in the Chinese Checker puzzle–you of all people, Mr. Kabak, should appreciate that politics and life is more like baseball than it is (linear) football–and change is now.

Perhaps I fail to emphasize the positive; your post here is thought-provoking and worthwhile. But rampant pessimism won’t win the day, any more than unbridled optimism will.

Fg October 16, 2011 - 8:01 pm

We need Arc you are wrong

lawhawk October 18, 2011 - 12:39 pm

Where Ben attributes blame for cancelling ARC on NJ, the fact is that the Feds refused to pick up the overrun costs and they knew that NJTransit was incapable of holding the costs to $1 billion (which was the best case scenario). Much more likely was that the costs would run up to $5 billion or more. NJ taxpayers shouldn’t have been on the hook for that interstate project when it benefits NY and NYC as well. I fault the feds for not making sure that the project got underway as flawed as it was (and it was seriously flawed).

Beginning with the fact that a one-seat ride is not the panacea you think it is from Northern NJ. When NJ Transit cuts service and increases fares to maintain its existing level of service, you have to question how it can run more 1-seat trains to Manhattan while maintaining service into Hoboken where the supposed 1-seat rides would come from. It would mean less service to Hoboken (and hence to Lower Manhattan via PATH versus going to midtown and getting to Lower Manhattan via subway), but it would make the Secaucus Transfer obsolete after nearly $1 billion in sunk costs. And that project was an object lesson in how NJ Transit not only couldn’t contain costs, but failed to account and provide for sufficient park-n-ride (because they relented to Secaucus in not allowing a park and ride garage a la Metropark).

Moreover, the Port Authority has its own issues with trying to stay on budget, and most of the overruns at Ground Zero are related to failing to keep PATH transit hub on budget. Instead of the $2.2 billion budget, they’re looking at over $3.4 billion, which neatly accounts for nearly all of the costs associated with the fare/toll hike.

When ARC was killed, the Port Authority funds for ARC were designated for other transit projects that are critical, but it meant that there’s no new funding stream for the ARC successor (Gateway), and the Portal Bridge isn’t getting any younger either.

Chet October 14, 2011 - 3:00 pm

It really is sad.

The amount of money that could be saved and raised through changing work rules, a small increase to gasoline taxes, a reworking ofthe formula to administer transportation money, and a rise in various federal taxes… Like a financial transaction tax could pay for so many projects around the country.

But of course, Republicans would rather drown themselves in their own blood than raise a tax and if the infrastructure falls apart, they really couldn’t give a damn anyway…and there are enough Democrats in office with enough balls to call them on it.

In the meantime, the USA just slows to a halt and rusts away.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:33 pm

You mean, there *aren’t* enough Democrats with enough balls, right?

As an aside, I suggest “guts” rather than “balls”, because some of the people with the most guts I’ve ever known are women. Might as well avoid casual sexist language when it’s easy.

There are certainly not enough Democrats in office with enough guts.

Eric F. October 14, 2011 - 3:12 pm

You lost me on that umpteenth body blow to the dead ARC horse. The entire post is about a lack of funds, and then you speak of foolishness of canceling the project. There is no money. ARC was not financed. We need ARC, or something like it, but you can’t buy stuff with no money.

Bolwerk October 14, 2011 - 9:49 pm

Um, ARC was financed. Supposed cost overruns that could be years in the future were what weren’t financed.

JAzumah October 17, 2011 - 10:05 am

When the overruns could be 25%-40% of the project cost, the project wasn’t funded enough to proceed. Yes, a trans-Hudson project is needed, but the local share of overruns is 100% and that was going to be a big number.

VLM October 17, 2011 - 10:09 am

Do you really believe that when push came to shove, the local share of cost overruns would be 100%? It never ever works like that in reality, and it certainly wouldn’t have for a project the feds had a heavy hand in ushering through the approval and funding process. That’s just another strawman argument opponents use to justify canceling ARC.

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 10:27 am

Okay, I can buy that. And if Christie did anything at all to try to reduce that number before outright canceling the project, I might have respect for such a position. Or he could have worked with an obviously receptive LaHood to find another solution. It’s the difference between leadership and partisan buffoonery.

jim October 14, 2011 - 5:36 pm

I’m not quite so pessimistic.

I do think that something more than Phase 1 of the SAS will get built, even if the whole of Phase 2 doesn’t. If I’ve understood the situation correctly, there are existing tunnels (and even some partial tracks) up to 120th St. except where the 110th St. and 116th St. stations will be. So SAS could conceivably be extended to 116th St. by building those two stations. That’s a lesser job than building the whole of Phase 2 and I can see some possibility of the MTA taking it on before the end of the decade (assuming that Phase 1 does in fact make its 2016 deadline). I do agree that Phases 3 and 4 are a very long way off.

Yes, the 7 line to Secaucus is dead. It never lived.

I don’t know that that means there will be no trans-Hudson tunnel for decades, though. Amtrak’s Gateway project, after some suitable reduction in scope, could well get started by the end of this decade. Engineering funding for it was included in the “Jobs Bill”. If there is long term HSR funding (and there’s some probability there will be), then some form of Gateway is likely to get funded out of it. And it’s likely that the engineering and environmental work that ARC did for the actual tunnel (rather than the station or the Secaucus loop …) will end up incorporated into the Gateway engineering and environmental process.

ajedrez October 15, 2011 - 1:15 pm

Well, a line starting from 116th Street (where all you really have to do is build a crossover) wouldn’t be as helpful as if the line started from 125th Street, as it would be able to take some pressure off the 4/5/6 (since some Bronx riders can transfer there). However, I do agree that it would be better than nothing.

hector October 14, 2011 - 7:58 pm

Listen- All you liberals who favor unions, quit whining over labor and construction costs. You put unions in place and they get what they get. If you dont like the costs, then quit putting liberals who support them. Secondly, the ARC deserved to be canceled. If you want to live in socialist land, then move to Europe! Look how well they’re doing!

Bolwerk October 14, 2011 - 9:55 pm

On the construction front, Europe does quite well. Their costs are significantly lower than ours, and that’s with unions firmly in place. Europe, frankly, is more conservative than the U.S. on most fronts. (Actually, it probably has less to do with ideology and more to do with Europe having less institutionalized corruption, at least outside of places like Italy and Greece.)

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:38 pm

Hells yeah. It’s not about “unions”, it’s about corruption. There are strong unions in Germany — very strong ones — and they are respected and treated well. But *corrupt* unions get broken. Now, when it comes to corporate bosses (the major plunderers and looters of our time), there is corruption everywhere — but in Germany it gets caught and people get prosecuted, as the endless Siemens scandals show. Here corporate looters get bonuses and golden parachutes and retire superrich.

The corruption in our institutions is really, really bad. I’m not saying it’s good in Europe — the people of Europe have identified the corruption there — but it’s really dreadful here in the US. Just above Russia or Mexico, and we’ll see how long we’re ahead of them.

pete October 14, 2011 - 10:14 pm

If the money doesn’t goto unions, it goes to capitalists. Which do you prefer?

I suggest prison labor chain gangs digging by hand.

normative October 15, 2011 - 10:48 am

“Secondly, the ARC deserved to be canceled. If you want to live in socialist land, then move to Europe! Look how well they’re doing!”

I don’t get why the ARC is socialist? That seems to me a pretty sad comment on a forum about NYC transit.

Also, I did move to Europe and my living standard increased a lot. When I talk to my family and friends, I have a higher quality of life even when they make more money.

Nathanael October 15, 2011 - 9:39 pm

“Also, I did move to Europe and my living standard increased a lot. When I talk to my family and friends, I have a higher quality of life even when they make more money.”

Ping ping ping, you have pinpointed it! If I didn’t have family ties, and if I could find a way to immigrate, I’d move for exactly that reason. I’d rather stay in the US and make it a decent place to live, but there seems a large contingent hellbent on making this a hellhole.

Alon Levy October 16, 2011 - 2:27 pm

It really depends on where you work. In some industries, the US pays much more – for example, medicine, since US doctors have a really powerful and intransigent union (the AMA). In others, it doesn’t. You’d expect the net movement to be from Europe to the US since more mobile people tend to be richer and the US has higher inequality, but in reality the net movement is about zero.

Bolwerk October 16, 2011 - 11:42 pm

With the legal, monetary, educational, and linguistic barriers, it makes sense. In either direction, the people who might theoretically most benefit are in practice the least able to overcome those barriers. Where you do see a fairly large degree of migration, or at least cross-cultural contact, is in the upper middle class and above. Among the people most able to overcome those barriers, there is probably little reason to bother.

BBnet3000 October 15, 2011 - 12:26 pm

hector, France has much lower construction costs and last time I checked, they had very strong unions.

Alex C October 15, 2011 - 3:39 pm

Please, don’t confuse him with facts. Hector outlines the fundamental problem with this country. Nothing gets done because Average Joe Psycho thinks anything and everything is socialism, despite not knowing the definition of the word.

Ian October 14, 2011 - 9:23 pm

Here’s a crazy thought many Americans might shudder at, but may need to seriously consider in time. What about private ownership of transportation properties? Think about what Jay Walder is doing. Yes, it was tried before and ultimately failed (original IRT and BMT subways). With government figuring out how to solve its debt woes, maybe this is where we will need to look to for infrastructure and transportation system improvements in the future.

Bolwerk October 14, 2011 - 10:32 pm

And what do you think the outcomes of privatization would be? Right off the bat, the first casualty of private ownership is rock-bottom financing costs. I’m not sure what benefits there are that supposedly turn an unprofitable enterprise into a profitable one. It may surprise people like “hector,” but whether ownership is public or private is fairly incidental.

JAzumah October 17, 2011 - 10:10 am

It depends on who regulates the new private subways. Last time, they were forced out of business.

Bolwerk October 17, 2011 - 10:29 am

Then why not just change “who regulates” the current system and leave them in state control? That’s not something that privatization does anything about.

Chet October 14, 2011 - 10:13 pm

It isn’t the fault of liberals. It is the fault of management that gives into the union demands.

Unions have been, by far, a huge positive for this country, for helping to raise the standards of living for millions, and move people into the middle class.

Yet, having 25 people do the work of nine is just stupid- not socialism, not communism, its just stupid. Eventually, the MTA will get someone who has the balls to tell the various unions that the work rules are changing. Either you operate a TBM with nine workers, or it doesn’t operate at all.

After some huffing and puffing, the rank and file will take the nine jobs instead of the zero jobs.

European nations are by far more socialist than we are, (yes, we have aspects of socialism here too), and they have unions that are much more powerful as well. Yet, they have work rules that, in most cases make sense.

They can do it, so can we.

Bolwerk October 14, 2011 - 10:44 pm

It’s not really socialism in Europe, anyway. It’s more a model of state capitalism; besides being a regulator, the state is an active player in the marketplace, and in some cases directly owns economic assets. Socialism is more about worker ownership of the economy, an area in which Europe is scarcely different than the U.S..

But if you insist on sticking the derisive definition used by the knuckledraggers on television, the U.S. is probably still more “socialist.” Near as I can tell, users in Europe pay more of the cost of most of their services, perhaps excepting healthcare. High taxes on fuel help cover the cost of roadways. Fares cover most of the cost of the transit systems, and the long-distance rail and air routes are expected to profit – even if there is some state investment. There are fewer government expenditures in areas like prison, the military, and policing. And, perhaps most telling, there is often less public debt per capita.

Alon Levy October 14, 2011 - 11:58 pm

Health care, and education. University is free or nearly free in most Continental countries. Just because the US has a communist transportation system does not mean it’s generically more socialist than other countries.

Bolwerk October 15, 2011 - 8:58 am

Kinda agree on higher education, but it’s not just the transportation system. Our higher education system takes a lot of public money, and much of the BA degree is now an expensive patch for how shitty things are in secondary schools. You can point to a lot of other crude examples that tie into transportation, particularly regarding land use and home ownership.

I don’t think the U.S. is more socialist than other countries, nor did I say I do. I just said, if you insist on using the term as knuckledraggers on American TV “news” commentary do, you find the U.S. is more <scarequote>socialist</scarequote> than Europe.

normative October 15, 2011 - 12:11 pm

The fact that this conversation inevitably turns to socialism highlights the degree of influencing and framing of television “news” talk. If we were in Europe, Japan, South Korea, or any other nation with a large public transportation system, no one would even mention the word, and deal with the perplexities of the issue at hand.

Bolwerk October 15, 2011 - 6:18 pm

Aye. It’s insipid. As if all government spending is automagically socialism.

The way they conflate liberalism and socialism is rather moronic too. They’re mutually exclusive, at least from the standpoint of economics, if not polar opposites.

Spendmore Wastemore October 15, 2011 - 9:15 pm

” I suggest prison labor, chain gangs…”

Funny you should mention it, chain gangs and tunnels go together like meat’n potatos
we could about finance the project by selling the movie rights

then bring in the public
“Chain Gang Boot Camp Workout”
then the book

damn we’ll have that thing dug to Stamford!

Building a subway most expensive :: Second Ave. Sagas November 9, 2011 - 4:56 pm

[…] construction in New York costs so much more than construction everywhere else, he said one thing: work rules. The MTA is required to overstaff projects so that the same TBM work, for instance, that can be […]

Chris November 10, 2011 - 12:54 am

The big question is – how do we set up adequate checks and balances to force unions to do the jobs with the minimum amount of workers, employed in safe working conditions, working an honest week? The problem is not only union based – US management often doesn’t know (or care) how to maximize the value of union labor. It’s bad enough that financial pressures cause the providers of jobs to often skimp on safety and to demand excess work out of labor. But the counterbalance of featherbedding is just as bad from the side of labor.

Maybe we need to divide unions so that workers with skill “A” are divided into “x” unions and each union competes to provide labor…. If pools of labor have to compete, they will have the benefits of a union, but checked and balanced by competition from others of similar skills…. Just a thought that would need to be refined….

But we can say when new technologies are introduced, that standard staffing from elsewhere should be used as the model for USA staffing, and we can legislate that work rules be changed to use “X” workers, based on an average number of workers used for a task in a select group of developed countries. The unions would hate that, but…. we might be better off in the long run.

Between the MTA and its contractors, a symbiotic relationship :: Second Ave. Sagas May 15, 2012 - 12:12 am

[…] increases costs. While MTA Capital Construction President Michael Horodniceanu once made an off-hand reference to me on overstaffing, few MTA officials are willing to speak at length about this problem, and […]


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