Home Capital Program 2020-2024 Signal modernization, ADA accessibility take center stage in $51 billion MTA Capital Plan

Signal modernization, ADA accessibility take center stage in $51 billion MTA Capital Plan

by Benjamin Kabak

The overview for the MTA’s next five-year capital highlights over $50 billion in spending priorities.

After months of anticipation and behind-the-scenes wrangling over spending priorities, the MTA on Monday unveiled a massive $51 billion five-year capital program that largely codifies Andy Byford’s Fast Forward program by bolstering investment in signal modernization and aggressive spending on ADA accessibility initiatives. The overview of the plan released Monday — a PowerPoint presentation rather than the detailed plan itself — also commits the MTA to complete Phase 2 of the Second Ave. Subway but at a cost of over $6 billion, making this 1.5-mile, three-stop expansion project the most expensive subway in the world.

Although the full plan with itemized spending details has yet to see the light of day, the MTA Board is expected to vote on the actual Capital Plan next week before it heads to the state’s Capital Program Review Board for consideration. With a proposed spend far in excess of the MTA’s previous five-year capital plans, its approval is no sure thing, but the scope is just what the MTA needs to embark on a path toward modernization.

The element of the capital plan most likely to jump out at the public is, of course, the price tag, and the MTA isn’t messing around this time. The agency has been challenged by Gov. Andrew Cuomo to produce a transformational proposal, and the agency’s first draft of its 2020-2024 Capital Plan is the largest in history, featuring a 70% increase over the 2015-2019 Capital Plan. Whether the MTA can actually spend this much — or at least commit to spending this much, as Janno Lieber, the agency’s Chief Development Officer, insisted they could in remarks to reporters on Monday — over five years is an open question, and the issue of cost containment hovers over the MTA’s spending plans, as it has for the past decade.

Still, calling the plan “historic and transformational…for our customers,” MTA Chairman and CEO Pat Foye extolled its praise in comments on Monday. “The next five-year plan,” he said, “will include unprecedented levels of investment equitably distributed against the MTA’s subways, buses, commuter railroads and bridges and tunnels. The result is a plan that will build on the approach and institutionalize the successes of the Subway Action Plan across the MTA and finally modernize and transforms our subways, buses and commuter rails into a 21st century efficient, accessible and reliable system for our customers.”

Signals, ADA upgrades, SAS Phase 2 headline the plan

So who gets what in this long-withheld capital plan? Let’s break down what we know so far:

As you can see, the overwhelming bulk of the spending is focused around New York City Transit and, in particular, investments in the subway. Considering that a large share of the capital funding is going to be generated via the congestion pricing revenue, this sounds right to me.

As we drill down on the spending priorities, we see that these investments aren’t what are traditionally considered to be “sexy” from a political perspective. The opportunities for ribbon-cuttings and New Year’s Eve galas are few and far between, but the projects are designed to maximize the capacity of existing infrastructure to provide more frequent and reliable service to more people. To that end, the MTA wants to spend $7.1 billion on signal modernization for six new line segments as follows, largely building on existing installations:

  • Queens Boulevard (E/F): Union Turnpike to 179th St.
  • Astoria (N/W): Ditmars Boulevard to 57th St.
  • 63rd St. Tunnel (F): 21st to 57th St. – 6th Ave.
  • Fulton (A/C): Jay St. to Euclid Ave.
  • Crosstown (G): Court Square to Hoyt/Schermerhorn Sts.
  • Lexington Ave. (4/5/6): 149th St.-Grand Concourse to Nevins St.

Notably, MTA officials would not promise that all six sections would be completed within five years. Rather, the MTA committed to starting the work during the next five-year capital plan. When this first phase of the CBTC installation is complete, MTA officials noted that 50% of passengers would enjoy the benefits when the work is done. Technical details, including maintenance costs of maintaining two signal systems until the entire subway network is CBTC-ready, remain hazy.

Along with signal modernization comes rolling stock investment, and to that end, the agency will spend $6.1 billion on 1900 new subway cars — which equals approximately $3.2 million per car. I’ve asked the agency to clarify how many of these cars will include open gangway designs and am awaiting a reply. Considering how much of the capital plan is focused around increasing capacity without expanding the system, the 8-10 percent capacity gains due to open gangways should be standard in all NYC subway cars going forward, but the agency seems hesitant to commit to open gangways until the R211 open-gangway pilot is completed.

The MTA also plans to invest $5.2 billion in accessibility improvements, and the dollars cover full ADA access for 70 additional stations. Station improvements account for $4.1 billion, and $300 million of that will go toward fare evasion initiatives, Lieber and Foye noted. It’s not clear if that line-item includes re-designed fare control areas that eliminate emergency exits, a major pain point for unpaid entrances to the subway system. Track rebuilds account for $2.6 billion, and the remaining NYC Transit subway dollars will be funneled into the Second Ave. Subway. (I’ll have a separate post on that soon.)

Buses account for $3.5 billion more, and that includes the purchase of 2200 new buses (including 500 electric buses) and a fleet expansion of over 175 buses. These bus upgrades are a key part of the congestion pricing equation as the MTA needs to be able to offer more transit service from the get-go to account for the mode shift from personal automobiles to transit that congestion pricing should encourage.

The combined $10.4 billion for the area’s two commuter rails includes funding for rolling stock, signals upgrades, station improvements, and Penn Station Access, the four-stop Metro-North expansion in the Bronx that brings New Haven Line Metro-North service into Penn Station.

Congestion pricing a key source of funding while political battles loom

And what of the funding? Here’s a snapshot of the MTA’s expectations:

Click to enlarge.

As you can see, nearly half of the funding comes from bonding out new revenues, including from congestion pricing and the mansion tax. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the other half is political. Will the feds pony up $7.8 billion, especially if Trump wins a second term? Will the city contribute another $3 billion to what is a state agency? Will New Starts money be available for the Second Ave. Subway?

It seems likely that most, if not all, of this money will materialize. Most notable is the 50-50 funding split between the city and state and the overall reduction in state contributions from $7 billion to $3 billion. “It is imperative that the subways run on time,” Seth Stein, a de Blasio spokesperson, said in a statement on Monday afternoon. “We are reviewing the plan to ensure that it helps get New Yorkers moving and that taxpayer dollars are used responsibly. We will have more to say soon.”

MTA officials said they were going to brief the city on Monday, and it’s not clear how that briefing unfolded. But during conversations with reporters on Monday morning, agency officials clearly telegraphed the expectation that city funds will help bolster the ADA spending. It’s a politically astute approach at a time when the mayor has been absent on the campaign trail pushing his doomed attempt at running for the White House as it essentially pushes the city into a corner: Fork over the $3 billion or risk the bad publicity of denying much-needed ADA accessibility investments.

In terms of the feds, the President’s extremely random tweet about the Second Ave. Subway indicates either that some cable TV news morning show was talking about the Second Ave. Subway or that federal dollars will continue to flow to the MTA, albeit perhaps slower than the used to. Still, the state legislature has a say, the price tag is a steep one. It’s not guaranteed that the $51.472 billion will all be there for the taking.

Reactions: Fast Forward vindicated; advocates call for more transparency

As the transit community digested this overview Monday, reactions poured in from all quarters. At the outset, many of the good governance groups fighting for better transit noted that the document the MTA shared on Monday (which is available here as a PDF) is an overview and not the capital plan. As I mentioned, we do not have a full breakdown of planned projects or project costs. We don’t know which stations are targeted for rehabilitation or which projects are holdovers from previous capital plans. The MTA also did not release a refreshed 20-year needs assessment which often informs the capital plan. (The last 20-year needs assessment was released in 2013, a year earlier in the cycle.)

Reinvent Albany highlighted the lack of details, a comment echoed by other advoates:

Today, the MTA released an 11-page slideshow partially summarizing the details in its 2020-2024 capital plan. To comply with state law, the MTA will have to hold a vote on the complete draft plan at its September 25th Board meeting, which is in seven business days. Reinvent Albany focuses on MTA governance and transparency. From that perspective, the MTA’s release of a slideshow that does not differentiate between core versus expansion projects, lumps together expansion costs and omits large capital projects is troublesome and again raises questions about MTA’s commitment to public transparency.

I agree with the need to see the full plan, but we can see a brighter future for the city and its subway systems. I have a few thoughts as well on what this plan means for the future of the subway and Andy Byford’s continued stay in New York City. Already on Monday morning, Dana Rubinstein wrote of a detente between Cuomo and Byford, and this capital plan is a vindication of Fast Forward. It includes all of the signal modernization projects Byford requested and more ADA upgrades that he had initially planned. While MTA officials haven’t used Fast Forward by name, that its priorities are to be funded is a sign that Cuomo has realized he and Byford are on the same team and that, as I wrote last week, Byford’s successes are Cuomo’s successes.

During comments this morning, Byford said that the capital plan “delivered beyond my wildest expectations” and that he was “ecstatically happy” that the priorities the city needs are funded. New Yorkers should be ecstatically happy too. I’ll have more on the dollars and cost containment (or lack thereof) later, but for now, this is a clear sign that the MTA is on a path toward modernization. It’s the investment the city and system need to become successful, and it shows that Cuomo has perhaps learned the right lessons from a year of picking fights, in the press or otherwise, with the people who can deliver him his greatest infrastructure success.

I’ll end then with the man who has the final say in all of this — Governor Andrew M. Cuomo. The verbose chief executive let rip a lengthy statement on Monday, challenging everyone to toe the line and quickly:

“Last week I laid out my priorities for the MTA Capital Plan, including improving signal technology, increasing accessibility, addressing quality of life concerns, ensuring equity for LIRR and Metro-North Railroad, and upgrading bus service – and I will review the details of the plan to make sure it fulfills those priorities. The Senate Leader, Assembly Speaker and Mayor of New York City must approve the plan in order to move forward as they each have unilateral discretionary veto power.

For decades the MTA was mismanaged and underfunded – that is why in 2017 we invested $836 million for the Subway Action Plan and $8 billion in State capital funds and $2.6 billion in New York City Capital funds. The success of that plan is inarguable – it led to the recent 84% on-time performance rate, a six-year high – but its implementation was delayed, and that cannot be repeated with this new plan. We have secured $25 billion during this year’s legislative session that will go directly towards the MTA’s capital needs outlined in this plan, and I support an additional State investment of $3 billion, to be matched by the City, that will go toward making our subways more accessible. We have an historic opportunity to institutionalize the lessons learned, build on the progress made under the Subway Action Plan and make crucial upgrades so riders get the 21st century transit system they deserve.”

The full plan will be presented to the MTA Board next week. The Board will vote to approve. And then it’s out of the governor’s control and onto the state mechanisms. Will this $51 billion dream become a reality? We’ll find out in short order.

You may also like


David K September 16, 2019 - 1:39 pm

No labor cost control…no OPTO, no elimination of prevailing wage. Putting enormous numbers out there is a waste of time. One day in the next recession no one will buy MTA bonds and they will be toast. Huge sums of costs are related to healthcare and retiree health care. No discussion about that.

6.2BN for 2nd ave phase II is insane considering all the talk of “lessons learned” from phase I. Feds will never fund half of that.

David G September 16, 2019 - 3:11 pm

Labor, OPTO, Wages and Healthcare are operating expenses. Even if you could get cost reductions in these areas they wouldn’t amount to even a fraction of cost savings on this capital expenditure.

The risk of being dragged by a garment stuck in a closed train door in NYC is real therefore the minor savings and yes it’s minor that you would get from OPTO is not worth the injuries, loss of life or the accompanying lawsuits. Look it up for yourself. NYC Transit workers actually lag behind other major city subway systems in wages which is insane considering this is one of the most expensive metro areas in the country. You can only saddle them with but so much contributions to healthcare. Especially since the subway environment is one of the most unhealthy industries in the country. Especially NYC since it’s over 100 years old. Transit workers are exposed to lead, asbestos, steel dust, silica, mold, mildew, dust from dried rat urine, fecal matter, decade rodents and many other items not mentioned. We talk about worker availability but the mentioned items are enough to make you sick thinking about it. Think about what it’s doing to the people who work on the tracks. Their out of pocket healthcare expenses if forced to contribute more would exceed yours two fold. Or matters would be made worse by avoiding a doctor to escape the costs all together. Life expectancy for a Transit worker is already lower than the general public.

Imo the focus of cost savings should be only stopping the MTA at the direction of NY State government behind closed doors to borrow money on bonds for MTA capital construction plans without voter consent. There was a Second Av Subway bond question on the 2000 ballot. It was voted down. A decade later some of the money was still borrowed on bonds. The MTA is $43 billion in debt on bonds. The interest payments amount to $3 billion annually. That’s a number the state could absorb and should. Yet that payment comes in the form of fare and till hikes.

Peter K September 22, 2019 - 6:53 pm

Thank you David G,I was ready to explode into keystrokes at David K’s “workers should be treated like machines” attitude.

David J Brown September 16, 2019 - 7:22 pm

I happen to agree with you 100%. It seems that politicians have no concept of cost when it comes to economics ( look at free health care and college as examples of this). I want to know how they expect to start ( let alone complete) Phases 3 & 4 of SAS when the “Easiest” part of the project costs £over $6 billion ( and I suspect more).

SEAN September 16, 2019 - 9:07 pm

There’s plenty of money for transit & ” free healthcare,” but it comes at the expense of bombing Iran & other unnecessary acts of globalism.

Chas September 16, 2019 - 1:55 pm

I’d like to see some NYCT Ops Kremlinology on why those six segments were chosen. Lex makes perfect sense, and completing Queens Bvld ends-to-end does as well, but why the G and Fulton, both of which run with relatively low capacity with regard to the theoretical max? And why Astoria?

J Adlai September 16, 2019 - 2:38 pm

Many segments were selected due to the need to replace signals that are beyond the end of their useful lifespans.

SEAN September 16, 2019 - 9:21 pm

I wonder since the G has lower frequency, the MTA could have chosen that line as it could be done sort of quickly & then be used as a showcase of what’s to come for other lines. Also this could improve a line that has sorta been neglected.

2200 busses is great business for both NFI Group & Nova. Also new MNR/ LIRR cars along with subway cars will keep that Yonkers facility humming for quite some time.

David J Brown September 16, 2019 - 9:52 pm

Since they are doing something with the G-Line, here is a recommendation. If I made a list of the WORST Subway Stations,the G Stations @ Hoyt and 21st st would both be on it ( Hoyt is like a dark depressing dungeon). I would hope they will be renovating both ( especially Hoyt ( because they mentioned the Fulton Line as well))

Duke September 17, 2019 - 12:43 am

Yeah, a lot of the IND has signals which are well past due for replacement. Might as well make the upgrade while replacing, certainly more efficient than replacing without upgrading, and preferable to continuing to defer work on these lines.

What is interesting is that the 63rd St tunnel is included but Archer Ave, of quite similar vintage, is not. You’d think if one of those has signals due for replacement, so would the other.

Adam September 16, 2019 - 3:22 pm

Weird, too, that this doesn’t match up in some extreme ways with the Fast Forward plan: https://fastforward.mta.info/transform-the-subway (see the map illustration)

Guest September 19, 2019 - 6:19 am

Was the first phase of the SAS not built with CBTC!?

Larry Penner September 16, 2019 - 4:39 pm

Here is what appears to not be not included which may mean it is the end of the road for the following projects and programs. There isn’t even any seed money to advance additional planning, environmental or preliminary design and engineering let alone construction. R.I.P. Rest In Peace as many will just remain a transportation planners dream….

$200 million for Phase 2 Woodhaven Blvd. Select Bus Service.

$2.2 billion for Light Rail between Jamaica and Long Island City on the old Lower Montauk LIRR branch;

$1 billion for restoration of LIRR service on the old Rockaway branch

$2 billion for Triboro X Subway Express (new subway line connecting the Bronx, Queens & Brooklyn)

$100 million for Main Street Flushing Intermodal Bus Terminal

$40 for reopening the Woodhaven Blvd. Atlantic Branch LIRR Station

$2.7 billion for the Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront Street Car Connector. This would connect various neighborhoods along the waterfront from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens;

$5 billion for the Utica Avenue NYC Transit subway extension.

$800 million to build the new #7 subway station at 10th Avenue & 41st (deleted from original $2.4 billion Hudson Yard#7 subway extension scope of work to save $500 million)

$3.5 billion Red Hook Brooklyn subway extension from NYC Transit #1 subway line from the Rector Street downtown Manhattan station to Red Hook.

$600 million for Staten Island North Shore Bus Rapid Transit

$1.5 billion for Staten Island West Shore Bus Rapid Transit

$200 million for Metro North West Bronx Penn Station Access via Amtrak Empire Corridor

$150 million to reopen the old Penn Station Hilton Corridor also known as Gimbels Passageway. This once provided a direct underground route to Herald Square including connections to the Broadway N, R, Q & W and 6th Avenue B, D, F & M subway lines along with the PATH system.

$360 million for electrification on the LIRR Port Jefferson branch from Huntington to Port Jefferson

($360 million for electrification on the LIRR Montauk line from Babylon to Speonk

$128 million for electrification on the LIRR Ronkonkoma line from Ronkonkoma to Yaphank

$120 million for electrification on the LIRR Oyster Bay line from East Williston to Mineola

$400 million for a new LIRR storage yard on the Port Jefferson branch between Huntington and Port Jefferson to support electric multiple unit MU cars and for future East Side Access service to Grand Central Terminal

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road MTA Bus, Nassau County NICE Bus, New Jersey Transit along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ).
. . !

David J Brown September 16, 2019 - 5:13 pm

Since they are doing so much work on the F-Line ( as always), I wonder if work at the following stations are included? 1: Bergen St ( downstairs). 2: West 4th St ( disgusting smell). 3: East Broadway ( falling apart).

Chet September 16, 2019 - 9:23 pm

Yes, this plan is good news, but if there was one change I would like to see, is something, anything to be done that lowers the cost of the SAS Phase II by a couple of billion dollars.

Save that money, and we’d be able to add the Triboro RX line.

yuuka September 16, 2019 - 9:27 pm

I’d rather they attempt to build Phase 3 with that money as well.

a320lga September 17, 2019 - 12:32 am

The safety arguments for OPTO/special treatment of workers makes sense until you consider that pretty much every other transit system in the world — some, like London, actually being older than NYC — uses OPTO and produces better outcomes than NYC. We’re not special. We’re just myopic.

As for wages, I agree that we should be paying workers properly, but that need has to be counterbalanced with productivity improvements and some basic fiscal discipline — the largest operating cost escalations over the past decade have come from labor. To be sure, productivity isn’t just a labor question, as there’s a lot mgmt could do to improve it w/o the union, but at the end of the day worker cooperation towards things like reduced work gang size, increased automation, etc is needed.

To the ‘2PTO is an insignificant cost’ point you’re right in the context of the overall budget, but when you look at variable costs of providing service (ie the cost per train hour figures that are used to calculate the price of additional rain service) conductors play a major role. Eliminating that expense may actually make the addition of train service cost-positive, what with NYC demand elasticities being as high as they are. In other words, going OPTO may make service cheap enough to run that it isn’t the first thing to get cut in recessions. Also worth noting that an OPTO implementation like they have in Toronto w/ in-can screens reduces worker exposure to air contamination and passenger assaults…

yuuka September 17, 2019 - 12:54 am

The unions say the issue with OPTO in NYC is the length of the trains, compared to London or something. Well, they could go to Hong Kong, where you have 12 cars of 75 footers per train on the East Rail Line, and OPTO + platform attendants in peak hour.

Alternatively, they could have chosen to put money into platform doors (even half height ones), which could make a future OPTO implementation more palatable. Mr. Kabak would have seen OPTO in place on the Fukutoshin Line in Tokyo, where 10 car trains are just a bit longer than in NYC.

Either way, implement CBTC and ATO first, which reduces the workload on the train staff. Only then can OPTO on a large scale be more productively discussed.

AMM September 17, 2019 - 8:40 am

Whenever I see “ADA accessibility,” I cringe.

From what I can see, when reconditioning stations, and indeed throughout our society, “ADA accessibility” is just a check box. Apparently nobody actually looks at the “improvements” from the point of a disabled person.

There have been several periods during the decades I have lived in the NYC area when I had trouble walking and especially climbing or descending stairs, and tried to use the “accessibility” features. The biggest problem is the elevators: each time you have to change levels — and you almost always have to change levels multiple times just to get in or out of a station — there is only ever one elevator. And they are frequently out of order. Frequently I would get to the elevator and find that it was official out of order or else just didn’t work. Fortunately, I was still able to climb stairs — painfully, and exacerbating my joint problems — but if I had not been able, and especially if I were confined to a wheelchair, I would have been stuck. FWIW, I notice that in the stations where the general public needs to use an elevator, there are always at least two or three.

Another problem is bad station design. Fulton and Broadway (and the whole New WTC complex), with its many, many quirky intermediate levels and oddly placed elevators, is an extreme example of meeting the letter of “ADA accessibility” while doing its best to violate its spirit. (It’s no fun to navigate it even if you’re able-bodied, either. Whoever designed it evidently never considered that somebody might actually enter the station wanting to go somewhere.) But Grand Central isn’t all that good, either — try to get from track 42 to the shuttle platform without going up or down stairs, and you’ll have quite a hike.

For the subway system (or Metro-North, or Path, or NJT) to actually be accessible, a disabled person has to be able to trust that when they need to go somewhere, they will actually get there and not find themselves trapped somewhere or other by some “accessibility” feature that doesn’t work. For a transportation system to be of any use, every stage of the trip has to work or at least have a functional work-around all the time. Organizations like the MTA are good at doing this for the able-bodied, regardless of cost, but when it comes to the less able-bodied, they spend as little thought or money as they can get away with.

Stephen September 17, 2019 - 10:18 am

What is the ‘internet tax advantage?’
NY is not exactly a low-tax place. We get taxed on shipping & handling charges.

AMH September 17, 2019 - 3:55 pm

My guess is that’s the loophole that allowed online retailers not to collect sales tax.

Larry Littlefield September 17, 2019 - 10:20 am

In 2025 additional signals and subway cars will be at the end of their useful life, and all the future congestion pricing revenues will be gone — bonded against.

That’s why there is no 20-year needs assessment.

They are planning to spend $51 billion, then abandon the system for the next generation. And no one is talking about it. They’ll be another capital plan that doesn’t actually take place — like the one that is now ending.

This continuous pillage of the future and those who will live in it just passes unremarked. Of course later born generations will be worse and worse off while we cash in now, but don’t bring it up!

SEAN September 19, 2019 - 8:29 pm

They are planning to spend $51 billion, then abandon the system for the next generation. And no one is talking about it. They’ll be another capital plan that doesn’t actually take place — like the one that is now ending.

This continuous pillage of the future and those who will live in it just passes unremarked. Of course later born generations will be worse and worse off while we cash in now, but don’t bring it up!

And who is saying don’t bring it up Larry? You’re making this look like a giant conspiracy.

Peter September 17, 2019 - 12:48 pm

Do we know if the rolling stock orders represented in this plan are to be designed to updated FRA standards? If the MTA moved to lighter-weight European-style specifications it seems there would be the potential to both lower the purchase price of the trainsets and realize knock-on savings in the form of reduced power consumption and maintenance costs.

AMH September 17, 2019 - 3:58 pm

Good question. I don’t think the subway falls under FRA (unlike PATH) since it operates entirely within one state, but the subway cars are much too heavy. Not sure what drives that, but shedding excess weight should be a priority.

SEAN September 17, 2019 - 11:38 pm

The only reason PATH falls under FRA regulations is they share a track segment between just east of Harrison station & Newark Penn.

Mitch W. September 18, 2019 - 10:54 am

While the Utica Ave subway isn’t included in this capital plan, there’s definitely movement to have it included in the next capital plan. The MTA announced on April 10th that the study was officially underway. The Brooklyn BP’s office is actually having a meeting this Friday to discuss the outcome of a study done by NYU on the Utica Ave corridor. Feel free to reach out if you want more info.

The Hunkster September 21, 2019 - 10:12 am

As a young millennial, I have no choice but to pay higher fares for less capital and service improvements because I could tell that the congestion pricing revenue would be used to pay off billions of dollars in MTA debt service that was caused by Governor Cthulhu and his MTA for the rest of my own life of course.


Leave a Comment