Opinion

The MTA's multi-billion dollar question

By Helen Rosenthal and Ydanis Rodriguez |  

August 21, 2017 |  

(Shutterstock)

New York is an exceptional city, and for more than 100 years, our subway system has been a major player in our extraordinary story.

With that subway system now in crisis, it's time to think boldly if we are going to remain exceptional. As New Yorkers consider the $836 million sought by the MTA to make emergency repairs and the over $8 billion more requested to make long-term fixes, the end result will be the highest transit construction costs in the world. 

Last week, the MTA testified to the City Council that New York City spends as much as it does on its subway system precisely because it is exceptional. While we wholeheartedly agree with this characterization of our city, it is simply not a sufficient explanation when it comes to cost management. Yes, the infrastructure we rely upon so heavily as a city is expensive, but does it have to be?

We need real answers, as the evidence is clear that we are not getting the best bang for our buck.

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It costs New York five times more to build the same amount of track miles and just one more new train station as it recently did London, according to the Regional Plan Association. Our then-record $2.1 billion per mile of track on the 7-train extension to Hudson Yards was dwarfed by our now-record $2.7 billion per mile for phase one of the new 2nd Avenue Subway. Up next, we’re expected to pay a comical $3.5 billion for phase two of the 2nd Avenue Subway. These are not the kind of records we should seek to break.

It costs New York five times more to build the same amount of track miles and just one more new train station as it recently did London, according to the Regional Plan Association.

By comparison, London is spending $700 million per mile of track for the Jubilee line, Tokyo is paying $600 million for their Fukotoshin line, Berlin’s U55 was $413 million per mile and Paris’ Metro 14 was $368.

We know that New York is an old city. Its layers and layers of infrastructure slow projects and balloons budgets. But cities like London, Paris and Madrid are spending way less to expand and modernize their systems, and compared to those aging metropolises, we’re a city still well in our youth. We simply cannot compete with our fellow global cities as they improve and expand their transit systems at a fraction of what we pay.

To this end, in a recent letter to the MTA, we requested that a commission be formed – with the necessary independence – to study, explain and propose solutions to the outrageous capital costs we continue to incur. Reform is needed if we are going to discuss putting city dollars forward once again to help the system recover and expand, or else we’ll never stop pouring money into the MTA sieve.

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As the system is now in an official state of crisis – meaning many of the standard rules for procurement have been suspended to get work done quickly – we have an opportunity to explore how we can streamline contracting, design and construction, now and once the system is stabilized. If management is the issue, let’s put teeth in contracts to incentivize on-time and on-budget delivery. If high costs are due to the dearth of qualified contractors, let’s do better to expand our options to increase competition and drive down prices. If it’s because we’re running a 24-hour system, let’s have an honest conversation with riders about what may be necessary to make improvements.

Business as usual simply won’t get us out of this crisis, and it certainly won’t safeguard the subway system’s long-term security. There is no question public transit needs more money, as decades of underinvestment in the core functions of the system have left us where we are today. But we also need the MTA to spend our hard-earned dollars smarter if we want to build a system worthy of the 21st century.

If we are to make the subway system fully accessible, if we are to build new lines into transit deserts, if we are to meet the demands of the next hundred years, we must put our limited resources to their absolute best use.

Failure to take on the issue of the bottomless pit of the MTA's capital costs threatens the subway system that is New York’s lifeblood. New Yorkers cannot and will not accept that.

Helen Rosenthal is chair of the New York City Council’s Contracts Committee and Ydanis Rodriguez is chair of the Transportation Committee.

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