Gov. Cuomo inspects track work (photo: Kevin P. Coughlin/Governor's Office)
The subway (plan) is delayed again.
While subway service has improved since the nadir that led to the current (and controversial) “state of emergency,” it’s obvious to anyone who rides the system enough or just watches the New York City Transit Twitter feed that there’s still a ways to go before everything is at or near full strength.
But while the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) needs a funding stream that’s sustainable and long-term, the authority has been unable to spend many billions of dollars already appropriated to it by both the city and state, money that’s supposed to be spent on expansion projects, getting the trains to a state of good repair, and more.
In other words, there’s plenty of money in the MTA capital plan, it may just be in the wrong hands.
The MTA’s 2015-2019 plan for capital projects is in its final year, but as the months tick by, it looks increasingly likely that the plan won’t wind up anywhere close to completed, raising questions about what will make it into the next plan and what will happen to billions of dollars allocated to this one.
By the MTA’s own account, only about $11.3 billion of the $32 billion pledged to fund the plan in 2016 has actually been delivered to the agency. It’s a function of the MTA’s inability to efficiently and effectively complete projects as well as poor planning and delays that go into the design of the capital plan, which covers everything from major expansion and repair projects to track replacement and signal upgrades, and deals with the city’s subways and buses, as well as the commuter rails.
While both New York City and State pledged record amounts to the plan when funding was announced -- a joint agreement among the MTA, Governor Andrew Cuomo, who effectively controls the state authority, and Mayor Bill de Blasio -- neither entity has given the agency anything close to the full amount promised over the life of the plan.
And there’s a particularly large shortcoming when it comes to the state’s pledge of $8.3 billion given that among several key provisions of the funding deal, which Cuomo and de Blasio haggled over for months, is one that says the money from the state and city are to be the last dollars spent.
As transit watchers turn their attention to the upcoming 2020-2024 MTA capital plan, it looks increasingly likely that the $7.3 billion New York State hasn’t sent the MTA for the current five-year plan will not be delivered to the agency during the expected time frame, or possibly ever. Complicating the upcoming picture are new MTA revenue measures, including congestion pricing, passed in the new state budget April 1.
When the 2015-2019 capital plan was unveiled, Cuomo and de Blasio put out a press release in which both men hailed the “historic investment” the two levels of government were making in the authority that, among other things, runs the New York City subways and buses. And both men promised big money.
The mayor pledged that New York City would give $2.5 billion to the capital plan, and the governor said that the state’s contribution would be $8.3 billion. But at the moment, the MTA’s own numbers show that as of March 31 the authority has only received $805 million from the state and $668 million from the city. On the other hand, the authority has issued $4.1 billion worth of its own bonds to finance the plan.
This spending pattern was designed like this from the start. In the same press release where de Blasio and Cuomo hailed their respective historic investments, it was noted that the state and city contributions would come proportionally and at the same time. Outside the realm of press release promises, state law made clear that the majority of the money would be the last dollars in to the plan as the 2016 budget language laid out:
“The additional funds provided by the state pursuant to section one of this act shall be scheduled and made available to pay for the costs of the capital program after MTA capital resources planned for the capital program, not including additional city and state funds, have been exhausted, or when MTA capital resources planned for the capital program are not available.”
Where’s the Money
This too was by design, according to a Cuomo administration official, who said that the last-dollar-in formula was to ensure that the authority spent efficiently and quickly on the plan.
“The MTA was in a state of emergency at the time we did these capital funds,” the official told Gotham Gazette during a background call under the condition of anonymity, “and we wanted to make sure that not only were we sending a record capital program, but then those dollars were going to go out the door. But the MTA had a practice of doing was enacting the capital plan funded with its funds and then using a portion of the proceeds that were committed to fund the debt service on the capital plan, but actually for operating,” the official said.
While this 2015-2019 capital plan, like those that came before it, continues to lag, the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that no part of the plan was being held up due to a lack of funds, and defended the last-dollar-in policy as ensuring the plan gets done.
“So why the agreement says that they should contribute first? Because we wanted to make sure that they did not not execute the plan,” the official said. And Freeman Klopott, a spokesperson for the governor’s budget office, insisted that the money is available to the MTA whenever it asks.
“The over $1.4 billion in the FY 2020 Enacted Budget is now available, as is the balance of the over $8.6 billion State contribution,” Klopott told Gotham Gazette by email, while also promising that whatever amount of funding is necessary for the plan beyond 2019 will still be available to the MTA.
But there’s also the question of where the money owed to the MTA in the current capital plan is going to come from. The latest report on the MTA’s finances from Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, released in October 2018, noted that “[t]he State has not yet identified the sources of $7.3 billion of its funding commitment, and the City has not identified the sources of $1.8 billion of its commitment.”
A spokesperson for Mayor de Blasio told Gotham Gazette that the city “will meet our statutory obligation which is explicit about how the monies flow” when asked about the status of the money pledged to the MTA.
The Cuomo official who spoke to Gotham Gazette disputed the comptroller’s report, said that the money is appropriated in the budget, and that it “will come out of the state’s general fund. The state’s general fund is over $100 billion, so it will come out of that, and it will come out as soon as they need the funds.”
Big Budget Questions
While the MTA finds itself in a position of facing down a capital plan costing perhaps $40-$60 billion, in large part to potentially fund MTA New York City Transit President Andy Byford’s Fast Forward plan, which involves tremendous amounts of work to get the system to a modern state of good repair, transit experts say it’s difficult to parse whether or not the authority is actually making do without the state money.
“These are not basic questions, they’re actually kind of hard questions, because I'm not really sure how the MTA is making do without this money, or how they get it back from the state,” transit expert Ben Kabak, who writes the Second Avenue Sagas website, told Gotham Gazette.
Kabak said that when the money is slow to arrive, the agency first cuts back on “cosmetic upgrades or things that aren’t important to keep the system running” to focus on signals and tracks and train cars. But over time, he said, as the money continues to not arrive “you end up with this sort of maintenance gap, where something that might have happened a year and a half ago, is delayed because of budget negotiations, and they have two stations that they need to catch up on instead of just one.”
A recent report from watchdog organization Reinvent Albany that focused on a number of MTA reforms backs up Kabak’s point on the maintenance deficit. In a look at the agency’s capital spending, Reinvent Albany found that the agency had only committed to spending $2.3 billion on signal modernization in the most recent capital plan despite the MTA’s most recent 20-year needs assessment determining the authority needed $3 billion. In addition, while the MTA needed almost 6,000 new subway cars in the span of the 2010 to 2019 capital plans, the authority only purchased 863 new cars.
“The fact is, [the MTA] hasn’t spent what they've needed to on things like signals and buying more subway cars and buses,” Rachael Fauss, a senior researcher with Reinvent Albany and author of the massive new MTA report, told Gotham Gazette. “Those are the areas where they’ve really not invested the way they should have.”
One place where the governor’s office and Reinvent Albany agree is on the design of the majority of the state’s appropriation for the MTA. But where the governor’s office suggests it is a good way to make the MTA accountable, Fauss criticized the practice as a driver of extra debt for an agency whose operating budget is 16% debt service.
“The way that that money was set up from the very beginning was problematic, because it was never guaranteed to be given to the MTA until it is finished borrowing money,” Fauss said. “I think it was always set up in a way that it was a false promise of full state funding, and it's been simplified to the level where it's been explained as it is a direct contribution when it's when it was extremely conditional.”
Where the Cuomo administration official told Gotham Gazette that the MTA wasn’t borrowing any more money than the agency had agreed to when the current capital plan was agreed to, Kabak and Fauss criticized the mounting debt as something that contributed to slowing down the agency’s ability to finish the plan close to on time.
“I think the better approach would be for the state to just directly fund all of these projects, and not fund a bond issuance, or something along those lines. If you're building out a new subway, that is going to generate more passengers and more revenue, you can bond that out, that makes sense,” Kabak said. “But if you're just investing in state of good repair service, or state of good repair projects, and then you really just pour more debt into the existing system in the hopes that the ridership will either grow organically or not start declining to boost those revenues you end up in a situation where they're at now where they're just sort of paying out debt to continue to maintain the current system,” he said.
“We're in the fifth year of the plan,” Fauss said. “So is it always meant to be that five-year capital plans drag on for a decade, and that the money from the state comes in at the last minute? Borrowing at the MTA is reaching such an unsustainable level that if the deal all along was to have MTA borrow some money, maybe that deal was bad to begin with.”
She added that “16% of [MTA] operating expenses are eaten up by debt right now. And it's going to go up to even more than that in the future, to a higher percentage. So when you've got debt service eating up the operating budget, that means less crews to do cleaning, that means less maintenance, that means fewer workers trying to do the same work when morale at the agency isn't exactly at an all-time high right now.”
That political leaders and the MTA have just come to accept that the MTA capital plans will now stretch out well past five years is also something that hurts the transparency of the plans when the agency plays catch up to finish them. Per the new Reinvent Albany report, the MTA “provides the total spending on each plan over its entire lifetime at the end of each year” instead of showing how much the authority spends per year per plan.
Having done its own math to determine what spending was each year, Reinvent Albany found that in 2017 the MTA was still spending $212 million on the 2005-2009 capital plan and close to $3 billion on the 2010-2014 capital plan.
And as the current capital plan reaches what’s supposed to be the end of its life, advocates and watchdogs are concerned that the promised state money for the 2015-2019 plan will never actually be delivered.
Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission explained that the agency could continue with business as usual, dragging out this plan for years. Another scenario is that in Governor Cuomo’s many desired reforms for the agency, the current capital plan could be capped at the projects being worked on at the moment and then rejiggered for the 2020-2024 plan “that will incorporate some of the projects that were previously there, or maybe drop some of them out,” Doulis said. “And in that scenario, the state’s $8 billion doesn't get used, and then the state can sort of rededicate it if it would like, to the new capital plan.”
A rollover like this is also a concern for Fauss. “The real question is going to be what happens to those individual projects, what's going to roll over, and our fear is that that commitment is just going to get shoved over to the next plan. Because they're not fully funded for the 2020-2024 plan,” she told Gotham Gazette.
An analysis from Citizens Budget Commission showed that thanks to recently enacted legislation around congestion pricing, an internet sales tax, and a real estate transfer tax on expensive properties, there will be $25 billion for the MTA to put in a capital plan lockbox.
“But that does not equal the forty to fifty to sixty billion [dollars], depending on who you talk to, that they need. So, if that money rolls over, or if those projects roll over they basically weren't completed in time and we're still going to be behind on them,” said Fauss of Reinvent Albany.