New York City’s subways are bursting at the seams, with commuters cramming into increasingly overcrowded cars and signal malfunctions contributing to a steady uptick in delays. Derailments on the downstate commuter rail network have reverberated across the system. And while elected officials emphasize high-profile expansion projects, such as the Second Avenue Subway, maintenance and upgrades have languished.
It’s hit a boiling point in recent days, with elected officials trying to deflect blame. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo clashed over who controls the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which manages much of the region’s mass transit system. The governor then shifted attention to the White House, calling on President Donald Trump to help deal with New York Penn Station’s track closings this summer. Cuomo also appealed to the public for “groundbreaking and innovative solutions” to the problems.
But lawmakers already have ideas about how to improve the system, starting with ensuring that the more than $30 billion in capital funding for the MTA is actually spent.
“A few years ago, the five-year capital plan allocated an enormous amount of money, probably not enough, and that money needs to be spent appropriately and in a very timely fashion, and that doesn’t always happen,” said Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz, who chairs the Committee on Corporations, Authorities and Commissions, which has some oversight over the MTA.
The Bronx lawmaker said that securing more money is also part of the solution, and echoed a concern raised during this year’s budget process: Cuomo cut the MTA’s funds by $65 million. The administration argued that the loss was more than made up elsewhere, but lawmakers and transit advocates have continued to hammer away at the issue.
“Now, they could say that’s not a lot of money compared to the overall budget, but $65 million is still $65 million. That money should not have been cut from the operating expenses at the MTA.” – Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz
“We fought, and we ultimately were not successful, but he cut the MTA budget by $65 million,” Dinowitz said. “Now, they could say that’s not a lot of money compared to the overall budget, but $65 million is still $65 million. That money should not have been cut from the operating expenses at the MTA.”
Dinowitz also joined dozens of city lawmakers who called on Cuomo to make changes to speed up bus service: allowing passengers to board through every door and allowing bus drivers to trigger a green light while approaching an intersection. “Those two relatively simple and inexpensive changes, I believe, would help a lot,” he said.
Other lawmakers are championing legislation authorizing the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road to halt payments to Amtrak, which runs Penn Station, to compensate commuters for unscheduled delays. Amtrak has been under fire since a minor derailment set off cascading delays in early April, with the governor suggesting that operation should be transferred to a private entity. The MTA, LIRR and New Jersey Transit rent space in Penn Station.
“What I believe here is that this gives the backing to the MTA and the Long Island Rail Road to stop payments, and as I’ve been reading in the news and hearing on the news is Amtrak, after the governor and our national representatives … have gotten together calling on Trump for federal funding, which I fully support, Amtrak came out and said that they have the money to do this fix,” said state Sen. Elaine Phillips, the bill’s sponsor who also chairs the Infrastructure and Capital Investment Committee. “So that’s even more reason why the MTA/Long Island Rail Road should be withholding our lease payments.”
More infrastucture delays ahead:
After facing sharp criticism over the state’s response to water contamination in the village of Hoosick Falls, Gov. Andrew Cuomo this year signed the $2.5 billion Clean Water Infrastructure Act, which is aimed at upgrading drinking and clean water infrastructure across the state and instituting new quality control measures. But despite the latest efforts, Hoosick Falls residents have continued to call on the state to provide an alternative water supply, while the state Senate recently advanced a measure that would let the village issue $1.5 million in bonds to help cover cleanup costs.
The recent opening of the first span of the new Kosciuszko Bridge was widely praised, but while the construction project benefited from an innovative design-build project delivery method, many other projects in the city and the state do not have the authorization to do so. In particular, New York City officials have repeatedly called on Albany to allow it to use design-build, which proponents tout as a way to control costs and meet deadlines. Around half a dozen state agencies and authorities currently can use the method, which combines the design and building phases into a single contract. The state Thruway Authority is using design-build on the bridge that will replace the Tappan Zee Bridge. Cuomo this year tried but failed to allow design-build at other state agencies.
What got done
Despite the corruption allegations linked to the original Buffalo Billion program, the latest state budget agreement included $500 million for a Buffalo Billion phase II. The intent is to continue the revitalization of the city, which has been cited by the governor as a success story. Another $120 million was included to upgrade 16 Long Island Rail Road stations, along with an additional $20 million to develop a direct LIRR connection to MacArthur Airport.