(photo: governor's office)
For those of us who want the MTA to finish a favorite project before our grandchildren are retired, now is the absolute best time to let Governor Cuomo know how you feel. The MTA is finalizing a document that will shape the New York region’s public transportation system for decades. Construction firms, unions, suppliers, and real estate interests are all lobbying the MTA to protect and further their own interests.
Every five years, the MTA issues a report of its capital needs for the next 20 years. This document identifies projects designed to improve travel for subway, bus, and railroad riders as well as for the drivers who cross the MTA’s seven bridges and two tunnels. The upcoming report will identify the transportation system’s critical needs and more than $100 billion worth of projects that the MTA deems essential. This is an extraordinary amount of money considering that the federal government ’s contribution to the MTA’s capital program has been less than $1.5 billion per year (and its contribution to all 6,800 public transportation systems across the country totals only about $13 billion per year).
The MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will set the stage in the fall for yet another document, a five-year capital program. The proposed program will identify which projects in the 20-year needs assessment should begin between 2020 and 2024. Aside from the state’s budget, the MTA’s five-year capital program is one of the most important and controversial items that the Legislature deals with on a regular basis.
In 1999, the MTA released a 20-year needs document that reflected the priorities of Governor George Pataki and Mayor Rudy Giuliani. The MTA saw the need to relieve crowding on the Lexington Avenue line and provide subway service to the Jacob Javits Convention Center. The MTA subsequently built three new subway stations on Second Avenue and extended the No. 7 train to the far West Side. Some of the initiatives identified in 1999 have not panned out though, such as extending subway service to LaGuardia Airport.
The current five-year capital program, which ends this year, has allocated approximately $33 billion to upgrade the transportation network, including purchasing new rail cars, modernizing signals and stations, and building new maintenance facilities. Nearly one-quarter of the program has been devoted to major expansion projects. These initiatives are the ones that are the most debated and anticipated, and include bringing the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal, preliminary construction for the second phase of the Second Avenue Subway, and engineering for work that will allow Metro-North to access Penn Station and build four new Bronx stations.
The MTA will propose to spend even more over the next 20 years than it has in the previous two decades. New York City’s population and train ridership have grown more than planners expected 20 years ago. Moreover, New Yorkers want the MTA to provide modern and safe services, and the bar that defines such a system is continuously raised. The new subway stations on Second Avenue have become today's minimum standard: spacious and quiet stations with numerous escalators, elevators, and electronic signs, along with platforms that are cooled on hot summer days.
One thing is very different about this year’s preparation for the 20-year needs assessment and capital program. Five years ago, Governor Cuomo paid little attention to the MTA. Now, the governor is intimately involved with the MTA’s planning and operations. The MTA’s 20-years assessment will be, in effect, the governor’s 20-year vision for the future of transportation in New York City, Long Island, and the Hudson Valley.
Undoubtedly, the MTA’s 20-year needs assessment will state that the authority will connect Metro-North to Penn Station and Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. The second and third phases of the Second Avenue subway are also likely to be considered essential. This would extend the subway north from 96th Street to 125th Street and south from 63rd Street to Houston Street. Future phases of the Second Avenue subway, including extending it to Wall Street, may not be in the 20-year needs assessment, indicating that construction will not begin until after 2040.
The document will probably also indicate that the MTA needs at least $6 billion per year to maintain and upgrade its equipment and facilities. There will be a huge gap between the amount of money available and the MTA’s needs. Hopefully, the state does not burden future generations with excessive debt. In recent years, the MTA has been unable to appreciably improve service because it is spending more than $2.5 billion annually on principal and interest to pay back the money it borrowed to finance its previous capital programs.
The 20-year needs document will reveal the governor’s thinking about how he wants to allocate funds between suburban and city projects, as well between new expansion projects and basic infrastructure projects. When it comes to the most expensive projects, he will have to choose between those that would help spur new growth (like the extension of the 7 train has done in Hudson Yards) or ones that alleviate existing subway congestion (like continuing the Second Avenue Subway). The 20-year assessment and 5-year capital program will also indicate how the governor plans on accommodating the preferences of key players in the funding debate including Mayor de Blasio and the leaders of the State Senate and State Assembly.
One caveat about the assessment report and how it will be indicative of the MTA’s level of transparency and accountability. Officials might not want to release the document for many reasons. For example, despite the passage of a congestion pricing program, it is likely to show the need to raise future taxes, tolls, and fares. Likewise, the report will reveal how the MTA is slipping behind certain goals that it had set to upgrade its sprawling network. Just because the MTA has issued these reports every five years does not mean it will release one this year. That would be a shame because the public and elected officials should be aware of the progress that the MTA has been making, and to better understand its ongoing and enormous needs.
For the rest of the year, elected officials will argue vociferously, in public and behind the scenes, about funding levels and specific projects. Although the media and public opinion will shape the final outcome, savvy interest groups know that the best time to push for their favorite projects is now.
Philip Plotch is a political science professor at Saint Peter’s University and the author of Politics Across the Hudson: The Tappan Zee Megaproject. His book about the Second Avenue subway (The Last Subway) will be published by Cornell University Press in the first quarter of 2020. On Twitter @profplotch.