Home MTA Construction Thoughts on the future of the MTA’s capital program

Thoughts on the future of the MTA’s capital program

by Benjamin Kabak
The Michaels, Grynbaum and Horodniceanu, discuss the MTA's capital program. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

The Michaels, Grynbaum and Horodniceanu, discuss the MTA’s capital program. (Photo by Benjamin Kabak)

Sporting his trademark bowtie, Dr. Michael Horodniceanu took the stage last night at a Transit Museum-sponsored event to discuss the MTA’s two capital programs that are due to come online this year. He presented about the ins and outs, the designs and challenges, and the impacts of both the 7 line extension and the Fulton St. Transit Center. While the presentation trod well-worn ground, a subsequent Q-and-A with New York Times reporter Michael Grynbaum revealed some of the limitations affected future transit growth. MTA Capital Construction does a reasonably good job at fulfilling its mandate, but beyond projects that are in progress and funded, the future remains murky.

Over the past few years, I’ve constantly stressed the need for a transit champion. We have, for instance, the 7 line extension because the city under Mayor Michael Bloomberg foot the bill; we have the Fulton St. Transit Center because the federal government contributed nearly $1.5 billion to first rebuild Lower Manhattan and then later to bolster the economy. We have East Side Access because Al D’Amato and George Pataki fought for it, and we have the Second Ave. Subway thanks, in part, to Chuck Schumer’s efforts. Everything else we don’t have because no one came to fight for it.

In a way, that’s what Horodniceanu discussed during the interview segment of the presentation. Grynbaum pushed the MTA Capital Construction president on transit expansions we’ve discussed here. Will we have light rail, perhaps in Staten Island, or a subway to Laguardia? Nothing’s happening there, Horodniceanu said, vaguely referring to the late 1990s NIMBY opposition to the N train extension to Laguardia. In other words, no politicians are stepping up to the plate, and the MTA isn’t about to stick its neck out for such a plan without solid support in Albany or City Hall.

What about the 7 train? As we well know, the original plan called for a station at 41st St. and 10th Ave. that was cut due to budgetary concerns. Even a shell station met the axe, and the MTA has left in place the barest of provisions for a future side-platform station. Furthermore, the tail tracks extend down to 26th St. and 11th, and it would have been relatively easy to extend the train to 14th St., perhaps to a meeting with the L.

In discussing these aspects of the work, Horodniceanu said it was “not part of the plan for the MTA to pay the money” to see any of these aspects of the 7 line extension through right now. “Had someone been more generous,” he said, there’s no limit to what the MTA could have done with the 7 line. But money is a constraint, and politicians are only willing to fork over so much to complete a project. (Not everyone, after all, is Santiago Calatrava building the world’s most expensive subway stop.)

At one point, as Grynbaum pressed the issue, Horodniceanu spoke about the other part of the equation — costs — and he ducked and dodged as best as he could. Things are just more expensive in New York City, he claimed, but he made some concessions toward labor laws and work rules that burden construction projects with what many would call overstaffing. Still, costs seemed nearly besides the point Horodniceanu was trying to make. If no one will fight for the project, it’s not going to happen.

In closing, Horodniceanu joked that he hopes he’s still live when East Side Access and the Second Ave. Subway are completed. I hope I am too, and I’m less than half the good doctor’s age. He also seemed to indicate that nothing is next without political support. We have our wishlist of projects, and the MTA kinda sorta has theirs. But until funding and a champion materialize, we’ll be left to dream of an era in which the MTA built out our transit network. It all could be coming to end within the next decade. Where are the champions?

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Stephen Smith February 26, 2014 - 12:00 am

Still, costs seemed nearly besides the point. If no one will fight for the project, it’s not going to happen.

New York politicians are more than willing to fight for transit (perhaps too willing, given what little they get in return from the MTA for the billions they scrounge up?). Just a few weeks ago Cuomo announced a $1 billion investment! It’s just that while in Europe a $1 billion transit investment would mean a few miles of shiny new subway tunnel, or perhaps a new light rail line, in New York, $1 billion buys you a few infill stations on an infrequent, expensive commuter rail line.

sonicboy678 February 26, 2014 - 3:08 am

That’s just Cuomo trying to butter people up. Let’s be honest here, he doesn’t actually care about transit.

Boris February 26, 2014 - 12:55 am

If I were Horodniceanu, I’d be too embarassed to leave my house (or the office), much less go to a public event to lie with a straight face. Of course it’s all about the costs. He’s just one of many people at the top paid not to see it. If projects cost less, there would be more champions for them, because they wouldn’t be such a hard lift politically.

James February 26, 2014 - 1:22 am

I was at the event. I am enjoyed the discussion. Money and politics will always play a central role in whatever the MTA does. Folks just want to get to their destination on-time and with no fare hikes. Innovation and willpower will never match Europe.

I wish things were different

John-2 February 26, 2014 - 2:38 am

On the LGA extension, the best hope is probably envy/jealousy as a motivating factor, if the Port Authority follows through on its PATH extension to Newark. “Why don’t we have it if they have it?” isn’t really a rationale based on financial motivation, but it’s something politicians do get agitated about when they see neighboring cities or states get some high-profile project, and appeals to the egos of the politicians in charge (see Bloomberg and the Hudson Yards extension) are probably the most reliable ways to cut through red tape and/or NIMBYism to get anything started.

Epson45 February 26, 2014 - 2:43 am

its all Bloomburg’s fault.

Eric February 26, 2014 - 4:37 am

“But money is a constraint, and politicians are only willing to fork over so much to complete a project.”

When your projects cost literally 5 times as much as similar projects anywhere else in the world, of course money is a constraint.

Get rid of the corruption, and there will be many fewer constraints.

Larry Littlefield February 26, 2014 - 7:44 am

What about ongoing normal replacement? Where is the money going to come from for that? And what’s the timeline to the 1970s without it? If the city and state had funded ongoing normal replacement on an ongoing, pay-as-you-go basis, the MTA could have borrowed for system expansions.

As for costs, I’d like to see a forensic audit of some of these projects.

How much is labor, as in actual work, costs? How much is retirement costs, over and above the normal cost of retirement. How much is schedule cost, with workers sitting around or rushing on overtime?

How much is materials?

And how much is consultants, process delays, litigation and “mitigation.”

AG February 28, 2014 - 2:20 pm

Larry – in fairness the city and state had no money for about 30 yrs or so to keep up with transit. The Empire State almost collapsed like Rome

Larry Greenfield February 26, 2014 - 9:36 am

Step one: Combine the MTA and Port Authority. No need for two agencies competing for the same money for transit infrastructure.

lawhawk February 26, 2014 - 9:49 am

I’d settle for the MTA eliminating the distinction between the MNR and LIRR. Eliminate the separate bureaucracies and clean out the swamp at LIRR, which has a valid reputation as being a cesspool of pension disability scammers that have cost the state and riders at least a billion dollars. That’s a billion dollars that was pocketed by undeserving workers, and a billion that could have gone into upgraded facilities, state of good repair, or new infrastructure. LIRR has the worst disability pension rates in the nation, and it’s due in large part to the scammers there.

Let the MTA get its own house in order before tackling the consolidation of infrastructure agencies throughout the region.

Bolwerk February 26, 2014 - 10:13 am

I think the Port Authority is entirely self-financed. They don’t compete.

afk February 26, 2014 - 7:52 pm

And how does the port authority self finance? Any reason to dedicate GW and SI bridge tolls to PATH instead of the other transit agencies? Just because they have money producing assets instead of annual appropriations doesn’t mean that they aren’t competing.

AG February 28, 2014 - 2:23 pm

The airports bring a huget amount to the PA…. Until 9/11 and the investment needed for the Panama Canal expansion…. The WTC and the ports also provided a lot of revenue

Sad but True February 26, 2014 - 11:05 am

Ben – I really don’t think we’ll have transit expansion (beyond Manhattan) in our lifetime. C’est la vie. Too many barriers for some reason, we can’t have a great transit system like most European cities. We need to get back our work ethic. The Chinese are building entire rail systems overnight and they work round the clock!!!

Michael February 26, 2014 - 12:33 pm

There was another point that Dr. Michael Horodniceanu made, that has been made for a long time. While New York City is the financial capital of the U.S. it is not the political capital of the U.S., and that frankly, New York City is not highly loved all over the US. (Remember Ford To New York – Drop Dead!)

Some of the cities like Paris or London, Moscow are capital cities, where there is a national pride at work. So beyond the issues of costs, budgets, NIMBY, opposing ideas, and politics, etc. — there is also the competing needs of thousands of places in the U.S. Plus the idea that millions of Americans get around daily by car!

Public transit is expensive, and it always has been. It is just even more expensive now, even at the bare bones. In graduate school in the early 1980’s, my transportation instructor calmly said that once public rail transit reached and went past the point of $100 million per mile to construct – many otherwise worthwhile projects would and could not be built. When one is talking about $1.49 Billion per mile (even when accounting for similar projects of similar size and complexity), one is no longer talking about “chump change”. Some of the more grand schemes from those with their markers and maps, will remain good ideas on paper, along with so many other good ideas. Bottom line, as my instructor said was that transportation planning and policy is about money, plain and simple. Even though he is gone now, his words & lessons remain true.


Alon Levy February 26, 2014 - 5:52 pm

Vancouver. Zurich. Milan. Barcelona. Naples.

Actually, even Paris would fit – it may be the political capital, but it’s not as if provincial France likes it. What people in the Riviera think about the Parisians isn’t pretty. Ditto London and what the Scots and Northerners think about it. (Well, London is also the most expensive non-US city to build subways in, but Paris is way down the list.)


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