Letter to the editor: Can the MTA afford its long list of capital projects?

In advance of City & State’s mass transportation issue, which goes to press on Monday, I decided to publish a letter from Larry Penner, a transportation advocate, who closely monitors the MTA’s capital projects and their enormous price tags.

In this letter, Penner frames the lack of detail on the MTA’s five-year capital plan against the backdrop of the recently completed “remarkably productive” legislative session (in the words of Gov. Andrew Cuomo). When you look at the numbers Penner breaks down, it’s fair to wonder how the MTA will prioritize the various capital projects in the pipeline, especially as the price tags balloon over the next five years. Read Penner’s letter to the editor below.

In the recent City & State article, "Albany Aftermath – What Didn't Get Done" (June 20), one of the glaring omissions was any information on how the state and city plan to fund their long list of capital transportation projects. Gov. Andrew Cuomo never gave any specifics of how he will come up with $7.3 of the $8.3 billion promised to meet the budget shortfall in the 2015-2019 MTA Five Year Capital Plan. The same is true for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his promised contribution of $2.5 billion.   

Cuomo also failed to identify the specifics of how he will come up with New York state’s $6 billion share toward the $24 billion Gateway Tunnel project, which will improve capacity for both Amtrak and New Jersey Transit between New Jersey and Penn Station.   

The MTA’s next 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Program will first have to deal with $8 billion in unfunded carryover projects and programs going back 10 years. By waiting all these years, the costs will have gone up by another billion or two. There will also be many other new worthy capital projects that will be competing for funding in the next MTA Capital Plan.  There is a long list of projects that could very well be included in this plan, with cost estimates included:

·      The 2nd Avenue Subway Phase 2 ($5.5 to $6 billion)

·      Long Island Rail Road Main Line Third Track ($1.5 billion plus $700 million to eliminate 7 grade crossings)

·      Suffolk County Rt. 110 Bus Rapid Transit ($100 million)

·      Nassau County Hub Bus Rapid Transit ($400 million)  

·      Rockland-Westchester Tappan Zee Bridge Bus Rapid Transit (which would feed into the Metro North Hudson Line Tarrytown Station $200 million)

·      Metro North West Bronx Penn Station Access ($200 million)

·      Staten Island North Shore Bus Rapid Transit ($600 million)

·      Staten Island West Shore Bus Rapid Transit ($1.5 billion)

·      New #7 subway station at 41st Street & 10th Avenue ($500 million)

·      Restoration of LIRR service on the old Queens Rockaway Beach LIRR branch ($1 billion)

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

·      Main Street Flushing Queens Intermodal Bus Terminal ($100 million)

·      Reopening the Woodhaven Blvd Atlantic Branch LIRR Station ($40 million)

·      Brooklyn-Queens Waterfront Streetcar Connector (connecting various neighborhoods along the waterfront from Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Astoria, Queens ($2.5 billion)

·      Queens Woodhaven Boulevard Bus Rapid Transit ($400 million)

·      Western Queens Montauk Branch Light Rail (between Glendale and Long Island City on the old Montauk LIRR branch - $100 million)

Cuomo’s prized LaGuardia Airport rebuild also includes a baseline budget of $450 million for expanding the AirTrain, which may require up to an additional $550 million, in the years to come. The final cost may be closer to $1 billion.

The $3 billion new Penn Station will end up needing far more than $300 million in combined assistance from the MTA, New Jersey Transit, Amtrak along with Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. Does anyone really believe that potential developers will spend $2.7 billion of their own funding to pay for this?

Cuomo, the state Legislature and de Blasio continue to just kick the can down the road on financing these projects. They remind me of the character Wimpy, who famously said, "I'll gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today." When the bills become due, taxpayers will be stuck with Cuomo and de Blasio's tabs. Why would the next governor or mayor want to pay for any of Cuomo or de Blasio's bills?


Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.