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When Gov. Andrew Cuomo first announced the beginnings of the Enhanced Stations Initiative in early 2016, I was somewhat skeptical this spending program was akin to putting lipstick on a pig but willing to see if the MTA could find success in a new approach to station renovations. It’s been all downhill since then.
From the start, the ESI was intended to deliver a nicer station environment for the MTA’s customers while speeding up the pace of renovations and using a design-build approach to contain costs. The program was to cost just under $1 billion, and it targeted 32 stations. At a planned $28 million a pop, the ESI seemed to be relatively cost-efficient, but residents never embraced the 6-12 month closures required for work and local business have suffered.
As these types of programs go, it had a rough going when faced with the politics of the MTA Board. A few months ago, the city’s representatives to the Board all declined to vote for a procurement contract involving ESI funds over legitimate concerns that the ESI did not include accessibility upgrades and was in violation of the ADA. Although the contract was eventually approved, it could serve as further ammo in current litigation over the MTA’s alleged ADA violations. Still, the program seemed to be on track to deliver these new-look stations.
Not so fast. As Paul Berger in The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this week, the Enhanced Stations Initiatives wound up costing more than Cuomo and the MTA said it would, and the program is out of funds 13 stations early. Berger writes:
MTA chairman Joe Lhota said Monday that most of the program’s $936 million budget has been used for the 19 stations completed or under way. Mr. Lhota said costs rose after contractors began work on stations and discovered “infrastructure rot” that broadened the scope of work.
Under the original plan, the renovations would have cost an average of $28 million per station. The current average cost for each station is $43 million. “We live in a world of limited funding,” Mr. Lhota said. “We need to make decisions about how we use that funding.”
The MTA will have spent about $850 million for the renovations to 19 stations and the Richmond Valley station on the Staten Island Railway. That leaves 13 targeted subway stations without any funding. They will have to wait for the MTA’s next five-year spending plan, Mr. Lhota said, which starts in 2020.
That the program was more costly than anticipated and is now out of money is hardly a surprise; it is, after all, an MTA capital project. But this development seems almost secondary as one digs into Berger’s story. During, and despite, a contentious debate earlier this year on the ESI, MTA Chair Joe Lhota knew the program was out of money and did not disclose the funding situation to the Board. Berger writes:
On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end. “I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.
Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.
Knowing that city MTA Board representatives were already disapproving of the ESI, Lhota withheld information from the MTA Board that the program wouldn’t be as expansive as portrayed. Essentially, the MTA Board vote was a sham as the agency never had any intention of renovating all 33 stations, but the vote went ahead anyway. These seems problematic to me, to say the least.
It’s not clear what will happen with the ESI. If Cuomo is still around and the MTA feels this program is a priority, it could be included in the 2020-2024 capital program. I, however, anticipate that signals will be a major focus of that next spending campaign. More questionable though is the trust between the MTA Board and Joe Lhota and between the MTA and the public. What Lhota kept to himself has the potential to be far more damaging in the long-term than disclosure and a subsequent “no” vote would have been in February.