The MTA Wants Second Avenue Subway Downpayment, But Can’t Tell Us How Much It’ll Cost

Second Avenue SubwaySecond Avenue Subway progress as of January, photo by Rehema Trimiew/MTA Capital Construction

It’s that time of the half-decade again, when New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority releases its proposed five-year capital plan and nearly everybody, predictably, misses the 800-pound gorilla in the room: the agency’s breathtaking ability to waste taxpayer money through mindbogglingly ineffective capital spending.

This time around, the agency wants to spend $32 billion over the next five years for repairs, upgrades and capital expansion (that is, new train lines), but only has $16.9 billion lined up, leaving nearly half of the program unfunded.

While the MTA and many in the media make this out to be a simple case of politicians’ unwillingness to fund necessary and uncontroversial plans, the uncomfortable truth is that much of the transit agency’s capital spending appears to be waste, and nobody seems at all interested in dealing with it.

The $5.5 billion that the MTA wants to finish East Side Access and start the East Harlem segment of the Second Avenue subway is a small slice of the total ask, but it’s illustrative of the broader waste inherent in the MTA’s capital plans.

Included in the $5.5 billion is a $1.5 billion downpayment on the second phase of the Second Avenue subway, up from 96th Street to 125th. The project is grounded in real need, and is crucial to relieving congestion on the 4/5/6 Lexington Avenue express and local trains.

But the costs for the first phase of the Second Avenue are without any earthly precedent. The first phase of the project was easily the most expensive subway line on the face of the planet, clocking in at upwards of $2.5 billion per mile. To put that into perspective, Planet Earth’s next most expensive simple subway line was less than one-third the cost. (Outside of New York, that is. The MTA managed to repeat their effort on Second Avenue on the Far West Side, with an extension of the 7 train that’s more than twice as pricy as the most expensive one outside of New York.)

And to drive home how little interest anyone has in the cost side of the MTA’s capital shortfall, the agency didn’t even feel the need to offer up an estimated price tag for phase two of the Second Avenue project before asking for $1.5 billion to start it. When pressed by YIMBY, an MTA press officer said that the agency does not know how much the project will cost.

“Contracts have not been awarded and scope and design of the project have not been finalized,” wrote Kevin Ortiz. “We cannot price out Phase Two of the Second Avenue subway until that process is completed.”

The MTA’s board didn’t seem to object, approving the plan while blasting Albany for not funding the price tag-less project. Board member Jeffrey Kay even offered up this jaw-dropping comment: “What’s going to make this a successful plan is the funding of the plan – how is it going to be funded, not necessarily what’s in it.” Who cares what they’re spending money on, the important thing is that we find the money to spend!

MTA chief Tom Prendergast’s only remarks on cost were, as reported by Capital New York:

“A billion is a thousand million, and a trillion is a thousand billions,” said Prendergast. “These are large numbers. When you go to people and you ask them for money, one of the things you have to assure is that you are deliverying these projects as best as possible…on time, within budget, but streamlining out all inefficiencies.”

“We continually need to do that,” he said.

Sorry, Tom, but YIMBY is not assured.

The reasons for the high costs are no doubt complex, a mixture of waste on the part of management, unions and private-sector contractors, New York City’s spaghetti bowl of unmarked utility lines blocking the paths of stations and tunnels, and a legitimately complex tunneling environment. And while subway construction costs in New York are higher than anywhere else, other U.S. cities and even the U.K. have lesser versions of the same problem.

The MTA definitely has an inkling of at least the labor side of the equation – its leadership will readily admit that inefficient work rules cause overstaffing many times over on underground construction work. The problem is apparently so well known that you can read about it in a textbook about megaprojects, in which two people from Arup, the London-based construction consulting giant, write plainly that, “as a result of existing union agreements covering the eastern seaboard area of the United States, underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia or Europe.”

The MTA’s cost conundrum surely goes deeper than labor unions, but it’s at least something. If Prendergast really wants to assure taxpayers and politicians that they’re “streamlining out all inefficiencies,” known labor issues causing extreme overstaffing seem like as good a place as any to start.

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