Home Capital Program 2015-2019 The 20-year needs vs. the 20-year wants

The 20-year needs vs. the 20-year wants

by Benjamin Kabak

In bits and pieces this past summer, the MTA set forth its vision for New York City’s next twenty years. As the city continues to grow and modernize, the MTA and its subways, buses, commuter rail lines and bridges will continue to drive the city’s economy in more ways than one, and as part of an effort to meet demand and continue to provide reliable service, the agency has been arguing since July for twenty years of investment. We know it’s going to cost over $100 billion, and today, those costs and the plan crystallized as the MTA published the 140-page 20 Year Needs Assessment.

The document itself is an impressive feat of planning and an impressive feat of chutzpah too. The MTA is asking for $105 billion over the next twenty years — or approximately the same amount it has spent over the past 30 — without including any funding estimates for expansion projects. (Stephen Smith, now writing for Next City, has more on the cost comparisons.) So the $64,000 question is: What do you get for $105 billion?

What I find most interesting about the document is the way it divides MTA needs from the MTA wants. From the start, the agency is very forthcoming in its needs. It needs $105 billion to maintain current service levels, continue toward a state of good repair and prepare the system for more usage and 21st Century technology. It wants an unstated amount for future expansion which should include a 7 line station at 10th Ave. and 41st St., the rest of the Second Ave. Subway, capacity upgrades for the West Side IRT and the Queens Boulevard line, the reactivation of the Rockaway Beach Branch (page 127!), and even articulated train sets. The price tags for these expansion efforts — the wants — haven’t been included because the MTA, I’ve been told, doesn’t consider them part of the necessary needs for maintenance of and upgrades to the existing system.

One line in particular struck a chord. After presenting a table that shows how the MTA will spend $105 billion with the bulk of that going toward New York City Transit projects, the MTA notes how they restrained themselves. “On a fully unconstrained basis,” the report reads, “the agencies’ needs are even greater than what is included in this assessment since more backlogged state of good repair needs exist than can be implemented.”

Mull that one over a bit. The MTA wants to spend $105 billion on repairs over the next twenty years after spending $100 billion since 1982 and could spend more due to a backlog of work. That is the legacy of neglect and a tell-tale sign that a system which still employs signal components from the 1930s. To defend the ask, the report explains, “The significant investments identified in this assessment, constrained as noted above, are prioritized according to such factors as age, condition, performance, safety and reliability in order to provide the greatest service benefits and maintenance savings to the operating budget.”

In no particular order, then, the MTA has identified a variety of areas for its needs. It needs to upgrade the signal system to implement communications-based train control while bringing online B Division countdown clocks and generally making more real-time information available to the public. It needs to upgrade the city’s bus network. It needs to bring more stations into compliance with the ADA. It needs to add more transfers to streamline operations. It needs to add system resiliency in the face of changing weather patterns.

As the money adds up, though, the MTA argues that many of these needs will result in operational savings. CBTC, for instance, can allow the MTA to run more trains at lower costs. Another need — the Metrocard replacement — can improve interagency relations and reduce fare collection costs. “The future promises the ability to use a single smart card or a cell phone with a smart chip — cell phones being nearly ubiquitous in the New York region — to ride any and all of the MTA region’s transportation systems, from NYC Transit’s subways and buses to the commuter railroads,” the assessment says. This new approach could offer many benefits to the MTA, including increasing bus speeds by shortening the boarding process, reducing labor and cash handling expenses, supporting inter-modal fare payments options and improving customer service through simplified and expanded fare payment options.”

Outside of these operational needs and system upgrades, though, the MTA has capital needs as well. Combining these expenditures results in $68 billion in projected New York City Transit investments. This total includes over $15 billion for signals, $9.4 billion for stations and $8.4 billion for cars. The rolling stock replacement plans for the next 20 years include retiring cars purchased in the early days of the capital plan in the 1980s. The MTA wants to stick with a 40-year replacement cycle, and as it struggles to maintain something resembling a state of good repair, components replaced seemingly recently will near the end of their life cycles.

But what of the fun stuff? We like to dream big, and the MTA here is dreaming practically (albeit expensively). One project set for the 2015-2019 capital plan involves rehabbing the 42nd St. shuttle terminal in Times Square, the only part of that station complex that hasn’t seen work in recent years. “Work will include renewal and reconfiguration of the Shuttle station, both to improve passenger circulation and to make the station ADA-accessible,” the MTA promises. “The existing Shuttle station has various deficiencies, including circuitous customer paths, platform edge gap fillers and other components that are not in good repair, and a general station appearance that does not match the standard achieved through the rest of the Times Square complex.” The Rockaway Line will have to be rebuilt before 2034 as well.

So now what about those wants? The wants are what I like. The wants are what will continue to make the city more accessible and less dependent on cars while permitting growth in areas that are underserved by transit. Those wants are up in the air. The Second Ave. Subway should wrap at least 100 years after it was first proposed, and articulated train sets would do wonders for crowding during peak-hour subway trips. But these are projects that need more dollars and more champions. The MTA has a $100 billion need; how can it find the money for the wants as well?

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Scott October 2, 2013 - 11:48 pm

I like page 127… Utilizing Available Rail Rights-of-Way… The dream continues…

BBnet3000 October 2, 2013 - 11:48 pm

CBTC, for instance, can allow the MTA to run more trains at lower costs.

Not if they still runs trains with two employees on board when they dont have to. Thats what they are doing on the L isnt it?

Bolwerk October 3, 2013 - 12:30 am

I would guess it still saves something, since it allows trains to run closer together and maybe faster. Also, it probably reduces maintenance costs.

But maybe I’m speculating. :-\

D. Graham October 3, 2013 - 3:43 am

On that note you are correct. More computerized signaling means less signal relays which are pricey to say the least.

Serge October 3, 2013 - 1:27 am

What about streetcars (light rail)?

Bolwerk October 3, 2013 - 10:25 am

Maybe it’d get some love if we could put conductors on the LRVs.

Stephen Smith October 3, 2013 - 2:13 am

The MTA has a $100 billion need; how can it find the money for the wants as well?

Haven’t you been listening to Jay Walder?? Value capture, duh! The MTA’s expecting what, $2 billion out of a planned 25 million sf of new office space at Hudson Yards? So all we need is what, 188 million square feet of new office space to pay for the last $15 billion needed for the 2nd Ave. line? Who’s excited about redeveloping the Empire State Building?!

Joey October 3, 2013 - 4:30 am

From page 131:

These initiatives include: implementing Penn Station Access for Metro-North’s New Haven Line; developing a strategy for thru-running of trains between different rail networks and improving the functionality and capacity of Penn Station.

Could it actually be?

David Brown October 3, 2013 - 6:31 am

I will not be in New York for this, but I am glad that Republic Station/Route 110 and the entire Second Ave Subway are within the plans. One more thing I noticed, is they mentioned Willets Point and a Elmhurst LIRR Station, an additional 7 Train Stop in Manhattan, Grand Central and Times Square (Eastside Midtown Rezoning will impact heavily on them) and Staten Island (the Wheel and Outlet), all of which have big votes in the City Council coming up in the next couple of months, that will influence what happens. These are carrots based on affirmative votes. The October 9th City Council Vote on “The Point” is the first one. Gut feeling (based on the unhappiness of “Willets Point United” (the main opposition group to Willets Point Redevelopment)to Julissa Ferreras (the City Councilwoman in that area), is that the Willets Point Redevelopment and the Elmhurst LIRR Station will both go through). I do not feel as certain about the others (union demands on NO Outlet, and obviously the opposition to the Eastside Rezoning, but I suspect they both pass (the latter in large part, because of the promise of that additional 7 Train stop, and the fact since Gail Brewer will be Manhattan Borough President, it will basically be another decade before they get a second chance, because she is eight years of constant no votes)).

Peter B. October 3, 2013 - 9:26 am

Just to clarify, the report does not at all call for reactivation (which is the wrong word since there is nothing to reactivate and MTA doesn’t own the land) of the Rockaway Beach Branch. It mentions it in a single sentence as an aside together with another line as an example of something they could maybe do someday. It is not part of the $105 Billion budget in any way shape or form. The real takeaway here is that MTA has no plans for the Rockaway Beach Branch for at least the next 20 years, and no real commitment to utilize it after that period, and even then its just one example of what they maybe could do. Maybe they will expand along a different corridor instead. That’s why I am working for the QueensWay, because all I have ever seen officially on the idea of building a brand new rail line – because lets not kid ourselves that is what we are talking about – is a very weak, “maybe someday its an option” kind of statement from the powers that be with no indication they are making any plans at all along those lines. This 20 year pan, the very place where building a new line, is more of the same. Leaving this public, City-owned land abandoned and collecting garbage for another 20+ years (at minimum) on the basis of a “maybe someday, perhaps” is ridiculous. In those 20+ years the City just might sell some of that land to fill its own budget shortfalls and then where will you be?

Scott October 3, 2013 - 10:19 am

A park would be a missed opportunity for improved transit. I’d rather see it become a road before a park. The ROW needs to be reserved for transit. Queens needs a Cross County subway and this area is ideal as the ROW already exists…

Bolwerk October 3, 2013 - 10:22 am

Robbing the future of a potentially key transit corridor is unethical no matter how you spin it.

We all know the MTA isn’t going to take leadership on the Rockaway ROW, because the MTA doesn’t take leadership on system expansion to begin with. It’s going to have to come from the city or state.

AlexB October 3, 2013 - 10:28 am

$205 billion makes you wonder why we didn’t just re-build the entire system from scratch, or is that basically what we’ve been doing?

Nick Ober October 3, 2013 - 11:54 am

I believe Alon Levy pointed out a while back that indeed in any other global city that has infrastructure costs under any kind of control we truly could have rebuilt our whole system from scratch for what we’ve spent since the early 80s. Makes you wonder…

Larry Littlefield October 3, 2013 - 3:04 pm

“The MTA wants to stick with a 40-year replacement cycle”

Then it shouldn’t have refinanced the R62s so we will be paying off the bonds used to buy them for 50 years. Those MTA Board members, who have been there the whole time, should be screamed at.

Matthias October 7, 2013 - 12:40 pm

The Rockaway Line replacement caught me by surprise, considering that it was just rebuilt.


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