When the MTA unveiled its 2015-2019 capital plan a few weeks ago, agency officials knew it would not be smooth sailing. The agency had identified $32 billion in projects and $16.8 billion in steady revenue streams. The proposed budget included no contributions from New York State, and it was a challenge, in its way, for Albany to tackle the hard question of capital funding (and perhaps a Move NY Plan). It was then no surprise that the state’s Capital Program Review Board torpedoed the plan.
In a brief note issued to the MTA last Friday, the CPRB simply said, “Nope. Good try, good effort.” They didn’t offer a rational — though the humongous funding gap was clearly to blame — and sent the plan back to the MTA “without prejudice.” That was the easy part. The hard part comes next. That’s the part where the MTA pares down the plan; Albany figures out some funding scheme; and everything gets approved.
It sounds so easy, but of course, it’s not. Along the way, the MTA will have to contend with the usual array of everything. In a Bond Buyer article about the CPRB decision, one know-nothing type putting himself out as a government consultant even tried to resort to that tired “two sets of books” trope. It’s an uphill battle every five years and one that no one ever seems to remember or learn from ahead of the next fight.
Yesterday, the obstacle was City Council. Now, MTA hearings in front of City Council aren’t all charades. It’s an opportunity for politicians to get MTA officials to say some things on the record, and what they said yesterday raised some concerns. The MTA seems to be planning the next phase of the Second Ave. Subway to go under pre-existing tunnels; they keep saying B Division countdown clocks are 3-5 years away, the same timeline they’ve had for 2-3 years; and plans to build a subway to Laguardia will proceed over a bunch of NIMBYs’ dead bodies in Astoria. That’s all been around in one form or another, but yesterday’s hearing served as a reminder.
Things went south when the capital plan came out though. A read through WNYC’s Kate Hinds’ tweets reveals city politicians arguing, after the fact too, for pet projects in their neighborhoods. While Mark Weprin deserves a nod for voicing some support for the Move NY congestion fee plan, some City Council members (and, um, MTA officials sitting in the hot seat) didn’t even know the basics of BusTime.
Overall, the hand-wringing seemed largely appropriate for a political arena, but as the City Council offered up some half-hearted solutions for someone else’s problem, no one bothered to talk about their contributions to the capital plan. In the MTA’s $32 billion plan to help improve mobility in and around New York City, the city’s capital funding contributions are pegged at all of $657 million or two percent of the total required funding. This meager amount of $131 million a year assumes a 25% increase over previous capital plans and some additional money for the MTA’s bus program. Who has skin in the game? Not City Council.
Ultimately, this is all about the dollars. Those people who pony up and take the step necessary to identify funding streams can have their say in the planning process. For now, though, the political charade plays itself out. The end game is obvious, but how we get there is not.