No matter the scope of the project, the MTA is not known for wrapping up construction on time. We’ve all seen staircases to subway stations closed for months longer than announced as work drags on, and the MTA’s 20-month delay in opening the 7 line extension seemed to evolve from exasperating to the butt of a joke and back. Now as December’s end draws near and 2016 lurks on the horizon, the MTA’s most public deadline yet — the completion of Phase 1 of the Second Ave. Subway — looms large, and the agency will have to race against time to open this northern extension of the Q train on time.
The MTA’s struggles with opening the Second Ave. Subway are well documented. Setting aside the 80-year history of this project, since 2005, the MTA has, at certain points, projected completion in each of 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Amidst a rash of bad publicity and serious doubts over Capital Construction’s project management skills — doubts that still linger today — the agency vowed to open the first phase by the end of 2016, and even though the federal government has projected an early 2018 opening date, the MTA has not moved off of its promise to deliver a Second Ave. Subway before 2017.
With one year left, the MTA’s endgame is finally coming into view, and the agency is going to need to have a lot of things go right to meet that December 2016 promise. It hasn’t yet moved off its deadline, but in MTA Board materials released this weekend [pdf], the agency offered a glimpse at challenges that remain. Furthermore, the MTA’s Independent Engineering Consultant noted that the current schedule has “a moderate risk of delay” that would push completion beyond December 2016, but the MTA has “obtained high-level commitments from its contractors that support a December 2016 Revenue Service Date.” In other words, it’s all hands on deck from here on out.
So what are the big obstacles? The MTA and IEC acknowledge plenty. Currently, the IEC lists four key activities behind schedule. The first concerns permanent power at the 86th St. station which will delay the start of systems testing. The second involves construction of the entrances to the 72nd St. station, a problem obvious in its description. The third involves installation of communication and traction power equipment, and the fourth is track installation at 72nd St., another element problematic by its very existence. Try as they might, the MTA simply can’t run a subway without tracks.
The MTA currently has a proposed timeline for achieving each of these key activities, but the timeline is losing its flexibility (or contingency). Track installation, for instance, is 67 percent complete, and the contractor has vowed to finish on time. Permanent power energization for 86th St. is on target for a late April date, and the contractor at 72nd St. has promised to complete the station entrances so training can begin on September 1.
In addition to key activities already behind schedule, the IEC identified areas of risk that could lead to delays over the next year. These include design and scope changes, fire alarm system testing (which you may recall was one of the reasons for the delay of 7 line extension), installation of certain power and communications systems, and personnel availability. With three new stations scheduled to go online within 8-10 weeks of each other, the IEC is concerned that Transit will not make available enough staff to ensure training and testing can be completed to accommodate a revenue service date of December. As the MTA hasn’t activated this many new stations at once in a generation, the agency is on unsure ground here, but Capital Construction says it will work with Transit to ensure staff is made available for necessary training.
Other than noting these issues, the IEC’s solution involved speeding up work and spending faster. It’s not exactly a ground-breaking suggestion, but at this point, the MTA’s wiggle room is disappearing. Things are moving forward, but it’s going to be a sprint to get to next December. The next quarterly update on the Second Ave. Subway will be published in March. If these scheduling obstacles remain, wrapping by December will be questionable at best, and history, as we all know too well, isn’t on the MTA’s side. If I were a betting man, I’d probably take the “over” on December 2016. How about you?