Home Capital Program 2015-2019 CBC: MTA’s capital plan lacking in focus with ‘misplaced priorities’

CBC: MTA’s capital plan lacking in focus with ‘misplaced priorities’

by Benjamin Kabak

Over the last few weeks, the MTA’s proposed $32 billion capital plan has faced criticism from just about everywhere. Staten Islanders are not happy with it; the state’s Capital Program Review Board flat-out rejected it; and State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is concerned about the ever-ticking debt bomb. Now we can add the influential Citizens Budget Commission to the list.

In a Policy Brief released yesterday (pdf), the CBC does not pull it punches. Citing “misplaced priorities,” the CBC calls the plan “misguided” and says that riders should not be asked to pay for a plan that doesn’t spend money on the right things. Essentially, the charge amounts to one of recklessness — the MTA has asked for an incredibly high sum of money without making the right case for the expenditures.

“The MTA is a core asset of the New York region’s economy, and funding its capital needs wisely should be a high priority,” CBC President Carol Kellermann said in a statement. “The public debate over the proposed MTA capital plan should focus on what the funds would achieve as well as how much funding is needed.”

The CBC’s critique can be boiled down to three salient points. First, the report alleges that the MTA is not making sufficient progress in achieving a state of good repair for aging and aged infrastructure. “Most of the facilities,” the CBC noted in a refrain we’ve heard before, “are not in a state of good repair.” To make matters worse — or at least, not better — the next five year plan will not close the gap and will, says the CBC, “leave many features of the mass transit and commuter rail systems, such as stations and less visible power stations and pumps, in need of repairs and renovations; the consequence will be less reliable and less safe service than the public needs.”

Second, the CBC is not impressed with the MTA’s plans to modernize the subway’s signal and communications systems. This should be a clear priority at this point as it’s one of the few ways, absent massive capital construction projects, that the MTA can expand service on preexisting subway lines, but it’s a tough sell politically as you can’t have a ribbon-cutting for some new signal system or CBTC. The CBC summarizes: “In the next five years work will begin on only two additional segments, leaving the vast majority of the system with outdated components for at least the next 20 years.”

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the CBC alleges that the MTA hasn’t properly made its case to the public. “The proposed plan allocates substantial sums, and implicitly commits even larger sums in the future, to new projects that expand the transit network without analyzing their benefits relative to other possibilities and without identifying their total cost.” In turn, the CBC states that the MTA does not have clear priorities in selecting projects and a “weak capacity” for implementing projects efficiently (which is probably being nice about it). The CBC wants to see explicit criteria for priority projects and evidence of long-term investments before anyone forks over money.

That final point is a key one as the MTA’s five-year plan includes requests for $1.5 billion for the second phase of the Second Ave. Subway and significant spends for the Penn Station and East Side Access projects. The Second Ave. Subway, in particular, has been problematic as the MTA has refused to release a full cost estimate for Phase 2. When the MTA first proposed the four-phase approach over ten years ago, Phase 2 was expected to cost approximately as much as Phase 1, but the MTA must refresh the EIS and engineering reports. Thus, the agency does not wish to give a final cost yet but insists that it needs the $1.5 billion to begin planning now and construction toward the end of the five-year plan. It’s a weird Catch-22 of this half-decade funding process but one that bears a closer look.

So here we are. No one seems to like the MTA’s capital plan, but it needs to happen in some form or another. How we get there remains to be seen, but it seems clear that the MTA should answer to these complaints once (if? whenever?) everyone in Albany gets serious about the next round of funding and spending plans.

You may also like


Boris October 24, 2014 - 2:42 am

Truly adressing the shortcomings of the MTA’s five year plan would make many very important people very uncomfortable. Is the CBC ready to back up the agency on this? Fixing the MTA’s cost problem needs everything from a review of union rules to a very public evaluation of the (in)decision-making process of top management. Contract language needs to be updated. Best industry practices need to be followed. Performance-based compensation needs to happen. Some tasks done in-house need to be outsourced (with a wholesale layoff program of groups no longer needed). The entire culture of “success is I retire before my project is finished” has to change. Employees who consider certain agency areas and equipment their personal property need to learn that it in fact belongs to the taxpayers of New York State. I just don’t know if our politicians care enough for the, frankly, quite boring and data-heavy discussion.

Larry Littlefield October 24, 2014 - 9:29 am

I, for one, would like to see what is going on with the multi-employer pension funds of MTA contractors.

My belief is that the unions and contractors did the same thing the public employee unions and politicians did. Retroactively increased benefits, while cutting contributions to the funds to increase profits and executive pay. The result is soaring costs.

Who pays? I think the MTA is being hit with a big share of that bill for PAST construction work in the public AND PRIVATE sectors. Donald Trump might have gotten a break on construction costs for a luxury condo 20 years ago because the construction pension funds were underfunded. That cost, plus interest, is not being shifted to the MTA to make that fund whole.

Chet October 24, 2014 - 6:42 am

The CBC criticisms make quite a bit of sense, especially the change over to CBTC. While I understand it is a tremendous job to change and entire signal system, it needs to happen A LOT faster. It is the single biggest change the MTA could make to the subway system to run more trains, and do so more safely.

Short of actual expansion of the system, something that does need to happen as well, CBTC should be an incredibly high priority.

Chris C October 24, 2014 - 7:47 am

The only real way to get the job done faster (and cheaper) is to close a line down completely – or at least large sections – and do the work all at once rather than weekend closures over a very extended period.

Yes it would be hard on everyone but the long term benefits would be immense.

It’s just that people don’t think like that these days.

sonicboy678 October 24, 2014 - 6:59 pm

That may be because of the alternative (surface travel), which is nowhere near practical when it comes to handling these crowds. If anything, that would harm the economy more than doing it on weekends and at night, when ridership is considerably lower anyway.

If anything, I recommend focusing primarily on water crossings first. Those are usually short or of medium length and lack stations. After that, focus primarily on lines with available express tracks and/or double-ended pocket tracks so service may continue with any specific tracks taken out of service for the sake of adding CBTC. Of course, cars must also either come standard with CBTC equipment or be retrofitted with it.

For three-track lines, I recommend taking the middle track out first. Once that track has everything installed, shift to one of two local tracks; shift to the other once that first local track has been dealt with.

For four-track lines, choose a pair of tracks to take out for installation. The pair must be a local track and the opposing express track (e.g. Jamaica-bound express and Manhattan-bound local for Queens Boulevard). Once work is done for the pair, switch to the other pair.

Two-track lines will come last, barring all available pocket tracks which would ease service disruptions. The process would be similar to Flushing at this point in time.

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 10:02 pm

You can entirely close many lines… but just try to do that to the Lexington Avenue Line. Ouch. You need a relief line first…

threestationsquare October 25, 2014 - 1:18 am

To the contrary, it seems like these days in New York every little thing requires lengthy service shutdowns. When the West Side and Lexington Ave lines were first opened in 1918 they were connected to the existing Broadway and Park Ave IRT without a complete shutdown; local service stopped for three hours, then resumed and express service stopped for three hours, while the necessary junctions were installed. Today, Paris had no trouble resignalling a line in the space of 3-4 years while keeping it running (admittedly with the ability to work at night, but without such luxuries as express tracks). The subways are not something we can live without, and this is not an excuse for upgrades having absurdly high costs and absurdly long schedules.

anon_coward October 24, 2014 - 9:28 am

CBC is right. finish the current projects and do CBTC first. it’s dumb to spend billions of $$$ to dig new tunnels when you can increase the capacity of existing ones for a fraction of the cost.

and they need to run new lines in the outer boroughs and between the boroughs. enough of only digging up manhattan

Larry Littlefield October 24, 2014 - 9:34 am

So their real point is don’t even consider building the Second Avenue Subway. Do important work like new capacity for New Jersey instead.

Remember, signal throughput is only one capacity constraint on the system. We aren’t getting more #4 trains unless that entire junction at Franklin Ave is rebuilt. There are terminal capacity issues, which limit the Queens Boulevard local and the L train. There are train storage constrains. All these have to be lifted.

Finally there is money. There are plenty of lines where more trains could be run right now, if the MTA could afford to buy, maintain, and operate more cars. Of course I have proposed that the subway break even on an “auto equivalent basis” which would include all these costs, and lift that constraint.


anon_coward October 24, 2014 - 9:52 am

all these little things are still cheaper than digging new tunnels which aren’t going to fix the issues on the queens blvd lines or the amount of cars entering manhattan. one some of these lines you only need one or two extra trains an hour for a few hours a day to solve the problems. for the E and F one extra E train at jackson heights between 8 and 8:30 will solve most of the crowding.

same thing for Franklin. rebuild it and run more trains. and pay off some of the debt to stop the increase in fares

Brandon October 24, 2014 - 10:15 am

If the MTA cared about capacity the R160s would be articulated. But that doesn’t provide jobs.

sonicboy678 October 24, 2014 - 7:02 pm

Unless you can provide a solid connection between articulated trains providing capacity and providing jobs, you have just uttered nonsense.

Tower18 October 25, 2014 - 1:48 pm

I think his point was that articulated trains provide a capacity boost in the same number of TPH, but this would in effect be a service increase without an employment increase.

sonicboy678 October 24, 2014 - 7:03 pm

You do realize rebuilding that junction would require new tunnels which — wait for it — must be dug beforehand?

anon_coward October 24, 2014 - 7:25 pm

so finish the current projects, build out CBTC, pay down some debt before starting new ones and once you increase the capacity of the current tunnels start doing more expensive work. there is no need to take on more and more debt and keep on raising fares.

unless of course you want to send money to uber rich people buying the bonds for tax purposes

sonicboy678 October 24, 2014 - 10:25 pm

Connection? I’m not seeing a connection.

Ryan October 24, 2014 - 10:54 am

I honestly can’t tell if that first line was meant to be sarcasm or not, but 2 Av is the only tunneling project I would even consider placing higher value on than additional cross-Hudson capacity.

By the way, L train terminal capacity is a solved problem if you run the 14th Street Tunnel through to Hoboken and build out proper terminal capacity there, or run it past Hoboken through to Secaucus (you could hook and pick up Journal Square but that’s an extra route mile) and build out proper terminal capacity there, or you could even run it down some gently-used existing trackage along to EWR and build out proper terminal capacity there (at the cost of essentially doubling the L’s end-to-end mileage).

There’s a compelling numbers argument in building out a 125 St Subway from New Jersey to Willets Point via LGA and the Grand Central Parkway, which you don’t even need to make because the critical need for more cross-Hudson capacity is its own argument. (And the fact that the 125 St Subway saves you from having to choose between sending the 2 Av trains to either 125/Lexington OR the Bronx, because it could connect at 125 St – 2 Av and you would achieve both ends.)

23 St, 59 St, and 86 St aren’t quite as immediately compelling but that doesn’t mean there’s no argument to be made for them. And, of course, everyone here agrees that priority number one should be the 34 St tunnels – it’s just too damn bad that we can’t get those built and those are the ones carrying the federal interest.

I can’t stress this enough – lack of cross-Hudson capacity is a big, big crisis.

sonicboy678 October 24, 2014 - 7:09 pm

Or you could look into building some express tracks.

Cross-Hudson capacity is not the MTA’s domain unless you mention the S89. The express buses don’t actually have to travel through New Jersey; they’re simply planned that way. In reality, additional tunnels between Secaucus and Penn Station as well as an expanded Penn Station are truly necessary to help out. Given that it’s actually designed for such, PATH should also be expanded; I doubt PA would actually do that, though.

adirondacker12800 October 24, 2014 - 8:43 pm

they rebuilt Exchange Place when it was closed, they are rebuilding Harrison and are in the planning stages for Grove Street. Once Grove Street is done they’ll be able to run ten car trains between Newark and the World Trade Center. Pity that they won’t have anyplace to store them unless they drag tracks all the way out to Newark Airport. The H&M may have been designed for more capacity but then the city went and built the Sixth Avenue subway around it.
One of the ways overcrowding on PATH could be relieved is to get most of the suburbanites off and let them take their suburban trains all the way to Wall Street. Since they’d have to build a cavern station might as well connect it to the LIRR and let Long Island suburbanites change to the train to Wall Street in Valley Stream instead of Jamaica or Penn Station. Orient it right and someday Metro North riders could take their suburban train all the way to Wall Street. Or Brooklyn. Orient it right in Brooklyn and the trains to Staten Island could use it too.

Bolwerk October 24, 2014 - 11:17 am

Your definition of “auto equivalence” is either too arbitrary or requires too much false equivalence. Drivers directly have to pay little or nothing for the upkeep of non-major highway roads, which are extensive/expensive and see little traffic. It’s sort of like charging a break-even fare for all Manhattan trunk line riders, but then giving away everything for free to all usage that happens on other/branch lines.

As for as direct costs are concerned, NYC transit users already cover a greater percentage of the maintenance+operation of their system than drivers are expected to. Increasing the fare based on following your formula only makes this imbalance worse, and lets drivers even more off the hook for being significantly less efficient.

I’m, of course, fine with finding ways to reduce dependence on subsidies for the operating budget. However, don’t punish riders because driving politicians decided things need to cost more than they have to.

Bolwerk October 24, 2014 - 10:50 am

No wild disagreements with the report so far, though it seems rather muddled to me.

They claim the SAS and ESA aren’t supported by objective criteria (maybe the last one kind of is not, the first one clearly is), but then go on to claim several projects are good ideas including two involving the 7 Train.

They call for postponement of system expansion to establish objective critieria; I, of course, am fine with that, but it would seem to me this means system expansion can start again in a few weeks!

Glaring omission though: WHAT THE FUCKING FREAKING FUCK is with these people ignoring Triborough RX and Rockaway? No mention at all of relatively cheap expansion projects that expand the system to hundreds of thousands of potential new riders. Talk about lack of objective criteria: an expensive, politically difficult project for New Jersey, 7-to-Secaucus, is fine but don’t even say anything about a major expansion that primarily benefits New Yorkers (“citizens”).

Ryan October 24, 2014 - 12:31 pm

7 to Secaucus isn’t great – it should be the L to Secaucus because that solves multiple problems the same way a 125 St Local from Jersey to Willets Point solves multiple problems.

Bolwerk October 24, 2014 - 12:41 pm

But it misses the point of the 7 to Secaucus, which is commuter access to Midtown.

I’m not against 7-to-Secaucus (or even L, if you insist), but I’m not for it to the exclusion of lower-hanging fruit.

Ryan October 24, 2014 - 1:16 pm

Commuter access to Midtown will be handled by the 34 St Tunnels, which are far and away the most important of any of these new tunnels. 7-to-Secaucus doesn’t have any good angles across the river because somebody decided that serving Hudson Yards was important; ideally the 7 extension never would have happened and we’d be months away from the completion of a 42 St (I guess if you want to be technical it’s actually under 41 St at that point?) tunnel connecting Times Sq to Union City, NJ (and then on to Secaucus). That didn’t happen, we got Hudson Yards instead, that’s fine, but the 7 shouldn’t make another wide turn to go back to NJ.

You should have four new tracks under 34 St, as Gateway or Son of ARC or the JP Morgan Memorial Tunnel or whatever you want to call it. Do that, run those same four tracks through to Secaucus, and you’ve solved your capacity crisis forever.

I don’t think Triboro and more cross-Hudson capacity are actually in contention, in a reasonable universe we can easily do both – but if you’re forcing me to pick one (or telling me “we’re not even going to talk about project A until we’ve finished Project B”) then I’m absolutely picking cross-Hudson expansion to the exclusion of everything else except for maybe 2 Av.

Bolwerk October 24, 2014 - 1:28 pm

Both Gateway and 7-to-Secaucus seem pretty obvious to me. There is no need to worry about angles. Subways can make fairly sharp 90-degree turns.

The compelling thing about the 7 is east side access for New Jersey for the large proportion of commuters who need it. It takes crisis-level capacity pressure off Penn and PABT. I don’t see a similarly compelling advantage to L access; it might attract users, but it doesn’t fix commuter patterns the same way.

William October 24, 2014 - 11:14 am

Why don’t they extend the 2 ave subway south to 34 steet on Els section. It’s more cost effective and you are transporting people to where they have to grow. Developers will still develop near the el like they do in Chicago and Dubui

Will October 24, 2014 - 11:21 am

MTA needs to finish the 2 ave subway to 125 st. and 2 ave on cut and cover and extended south to 34 street on elevated section to cut cost. Developers will still develop like they do in Chicago and Dubai. CBTC needs to implemented on the mainlines in Manhattan. Finish the ESA into grand Central Terminal second level. Sell the buses to private companies and let the city work on BRT and ferries since that what they love the most

Fbfree October 24, 2014 - 12:46 pm

Chicago’s (and New York’s) els are terribly noisy and uncomfortably loud to walk under. Look at Vancouver’s Skytrain for an elevated construction with low noise. The trains in Vancouver essentially whoosh. Sound absorbing and reflecting materials in the construction, steerable bogies on the cars, and, if possible, lighter rolling stock are required to attain quiet operation. With that, yes, elevated rails should be considered.

Bolwerk October 24, 2014 - 1:51 pm

Modern viaducts probably reduce most noise to a “whoosh.”

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 10:06 pm

Pretty much any viaduct built after 1950 is concrete, and pretty quiet. The brick-arch viaducts from the 19th century are pretty quiet too.

The all-steel, mostly bolted & riveted construction of NY and Chicago’s 19th century els is the only form of elevated which is that loud; nobody builds it that way any more.

Larry Littlefield October 24, 2014 - 11:39 am

When it comes to system expansions, the CBC seems to be prioritizing the suburbs over the city and New Jersey over New York.

anon_coward October 24, 2014 - 11:44 am

because the city is more than just manhattan. most people live outside of manhattan and manhattan’s population is the lowest it has been in something like 100 years. and yet most of the money is spent there

lop October 24, 2014 - 2:13 pm

Isn’t it up a couple hundred thousand residents since the 80s?

Larry Littlefield October 24, 2014 - 2:33 pm


More to the point, however, is people working in Manhattan in general and Midtown in particular, and located elsewhere. The most important role of the SAS is to provide redundancy for those living on the east side and the Bronx (via the 125th Street transfer) and coming south.

And as I’ve noted, I believe it should be built as an express line south of 72nd, with just a few stations to serve those coming in — 55th Street, 42nd Street, 14th Street, and hook into the Rutgers Tunnel and 63rd Street tunnel.

Peter L October 24, 2014 - 1:40 pm

Always blame the unions. None of the dozens or hundreds of consulting companies and engineering companies that sub out the work to dozens or hundreds of other consulting companies and engineering companies get a *dime* beyond their actual costs. Not one dime. It’s *all* the unions.

Manny S October 24, 2014 - 8:14 pm

I wish that there would be some public engineering discussion of the particular implementations of CBTC systems chosen by the MTA. The decision to use outdated proprietary software by City and the MTA has unnecessarily wasted millions of dollars. Open code review should be required before additional millions are expended. Not all CBTC solutions are equal.

PH49 October 24, 2014 - 10:19 pm

could we please have some perspective? New York spends something like $53 billion on medicaid PER YEAR. Sure, the feds pay for half of that, but you’re still taking staggering amounts of money. And the MTA has to beg for $30 billion, to be spent over five years, to maintain and expand the transit that drives the economy that pays for this largesse? Does that make any sense at all? The CBC should shine a spotlight on how out of control health care spending has impoverished the state and reduced the MTA to an itinerant beggar. If the gutless legislators in Albany, who are totally beholden to the medical-industrial complex, made even a half-hearted attempt at reining in health care costs, we could have the transit system the region needs and deserves.

Justin Samuels October 25, 2014 - 11:07 pm

Cutting funds to healthcare would result in LAYOFFS in the Healthcare sector, which is a big employer in NYC.

Medicaid funding helps keep afloat the university hospitals that train the next generation of doctors, dentists, and nurses.

Basically, there will be no major cuts for medicaid. MTA system expansion will have to happen as the city or state finds new sources of revenue.

The high real estate prices in NYC, as more neighborhoods gentrify, lead to higher taxes that could help support the MTA. Bloomberg paid for the 7 train expansion by issuing revenue bonds that were backed by revenues from the rapidly developing West Side of Manhattan. No reason they can’t do this for phases 2-4 for the Second Avenue Subway. Perhaps a sales tax increase could be used to support the MTA. Ce

AG October 26, 2014 - 9:22 am

What you say is somewhat true – but I used to work in the healthcare industry. MANY hospitals shut down and more will be shut down going forward. The whole system is dysfunctional and not sustainable.
Look at LICH… That was all political. That hospital should have been shut down a good while ago. Most of the independent local hospitals are being taken over. Montefiore and NY Pres. have been buying many of the hospitals in rich Westchester County. It was absolutely foolish to try to keep it open. The industry needs (and is slowly) to move to more neighborhood urgent care centers and most importantly – PREVENTIVE CARE.

Nathanael November 4, 2014 - 10:09 pm

The medical system in the US is certainly dysfunctional. That said, you have to expect to spend a lot on medical care — even the UK, with the most financially efficient health care system in the industrialized world, spends a lot.

You want waste, look at the US military, which is sucking up something like a TRILLION a year, and loses every war it gets involved in. The Founders advised liquidating the army after every war and starting fresh, which avoids the problem of old generals “fighting the last war” — the problem which the US has had in spades since WWII ended.

smartone October 25, 2014 - 9:17 am

and this is exactly why the SAS should never have been split into 4 phases , if they had kept the SAS project as one project it would be much father along now and there would be much less resistance additional funding.

Four phases just give politicians four times to say no.

AG October 25, 2014 - 12:53 pm

If they didn’t break it down it would never get built…

AG October 25, 2014 - 12:55 pm

This report was a waste… The only thing worth noting is the increase in speed of implementing CBTC.


Leave a Comment