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October 14, 2019
by Adam Roberts
J Train leaving Myrtle Avenue. Image credit: Mtattrain [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)]

Last month, the board of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) approved its 2020-2024 Capital Program, the most ambitious capital plan the agency has ever approved, calling for $51.5 billion in investments. More than $40 billion will go towards New York City Transit (NYCT), the agency within the MTA that oversees New York City’s subway and bus systems.

Most notably, the increased funding is proposed to go towards NYCT’s Fast Forward Plan to fix the subway and bus systems by replacing signals, increasing accessibility, and improving stations. Furthermore, funding is also expected to go towards the much-delayed Phase II of the Second Avenue Subway, which would extend the Q Train to 125th Street in Harlem. In the suburbs, funding will help complete the East Side Access project and the third track of the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR).

Despite the promises of improvements, serious questions remain about securing sources of funding. The MTA is asking the federal government for $11 billion, even as President Trump refuses to provide federal funding for the other major mass-transit project in the region, the Gateway Program. Meanwhile, the MTA is seeking $3 billion each from the State and the City, which is a major increase for the latter considering that the MTA is a state agency.

The capital program has also come under criticism for how funding is allocated and how expensive these allocations are. For instance, LIRR received $1 billion more than Metro-North, despite their similar ridership. Meanwhile, the MTA expects its accessibility improvements to cost $78 million per station, far higher than costs in comparable cities. To add further to the MTA’s woes, separately from the capital program, the MTA released its study for restarting the Rockaway Beach Branch as either LIRR or subway service, finding that it would cost between $6.7-8.1 billion.

This release of the capital program has come as the MTA has attempted to cut costs for staff and contractors. Earlier this year, the MTA cut contracts with architecture and engineering firms by 10%. Along with general contractors, architecture and engineering firms have also been threatened with debarment should their projects go 10% over time or budget. Internally, the MTA is seeking to reduce employee benefits and overtime hours, all while not hiring additional staff. This has caused months of tense contract negotiations between the MTA and Transit Workers Union Local 100, with the specter of a strike lingering since May.

The MTA’s commitment to implementing necessary transit improvements represents a major step forward for the agency. Should these improvements come to fruition, the New York area would have a far more equitable and accessible built environment. However, issues remain about whether the MTA can secure the funding, keep costs down, and maintain enough qualified staff and contractors to successfully implement the capital program.

Policy Points

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