transparency

Closing Doors: MTA Working on Record Spending Plan in Secrecy, Watchdog Howls

MTA workers in a tunnel under Second Avenue and 112th Street earlier this year.
MTA workers in a tunnel under Second Avenue and 112th Street earlier this year. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The MTA board is expected to vote next month on its biggest five-year spending plan ever — but the future of the transit system is mired in secrecy, a report obtained by THE CITY charges.

“This is only the biggest thing the MTA does,” said Rachel Fauss, a senior analyst with the watchdog group Reinvent Albany. “And here we are, and this is one of the most secretive capital plan processes we have ever seen.”

The group’s report, “Where’s the 2020-2024 MTA Capital Plan?” examined past capital plans — which lay out how the agency will spend billions of dollars over five years on subways, buses, signals, station upgrades and more. The analysis found some previous plans had been released earlier to lawmakers, MTA board members and the public.

‘No Sense of Urgency’

Reinvent Albany’s report points out that a draft of the 2005-2009 plan was made public two months before it was approved by the MTA Board in September 2004. In 1991, the report says, board members and the public had six months to examine the plan before voting on it.

The MTA board voted on a draft of the 2015-2019 Capital Program in September 2014 — the same month it was made public, but 11 months after the agency issued its 20-Year Capital Needs Assessment.

As THE CITY reported last month, the release of this year’s 20-year needs assessment, which serves as a blueprint for the MTA’s capital plan, is running with delays.

“There is no sense of urgency, and that is very alarming,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “The people who are ultimately going to suffer are the riders.”

MTA officials disputed Reinvent Albany’s report, and a spokesperson said the current plan is “hitting the same critical milestones that the previous two did.”

MTA workers make track fixes on the N express line in south Brooklyn, May 17, 2019.
MTA workers make track fixes on the N express line in south Brooklyn, May 17, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“The state has approved an unprecedented $25 billion in new, dedicated financing for the next capital plan, and we need to make sure every dollar is spent wisely,” said Shams Tarek, an MTA spokesperson. “We’re committed to a timely and transparent plan that incorporates public feedback, is the best allocation of resources and responds urgently to the critical needs of our system without delay.”

Tarek said the agency will meet the Oct. 1 deadline to submit the five-year plan to the Capital Program Review Board, whose members are tasked with approving it.

The state Assembly member whose committee oversees the MTA told THE CITY that lawmakers were responsible for the drawn-out approval of the last capital plan, which was also subject to an extended funding fight between Albany and City Hall.

“We took a long time in approving it,” said Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale). “Hopefully, we won’t do that this time.”

Congestion Pricing Powers Budget

Paulin noted lawmakers have some sense of which big-ticket projects will be included in the spending plan — whose price tag is expected to be at least $40 billion — after the legislature in March passed congestion pricing to boost MTA funding.

“Because of congestion pricing, so much of what will be in the plan was revealed,” Paulin said. “The concerns for more elevators, more escalators, upgrading switches, new subway cars — all of that we’ve already discussed.”

Much of the $32 billion 2015-2019 capital program went toward hundreds of new subway cars, new elevators at more than 20 subway stations and hundreds of new buses. Bigger projects included preliminary work on the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway and construction of East Side Access, the Long Island Rail Road terminal being built beneath Grand Central Terminal.

MTA Chairman Pat Foye noted last week that New York City Transit, Long Island Railroad and Metro-North have held more than 100 public meetings about capital program priorities.

“Public outreach must be a key part of how we engage on the capital plan, but I want to highlight that we’ve started that conversation with a new approach,” Foye said Friday.

Fauss, of Reinvent Albany, said those town-hall meetings are “commendable,” but do not provide details on funding or project timelines.

“There’s some sleight of hand going on,” Fauss said. “There should be no illusion that these meetings are the same thing as the capital program.”

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