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Public Should Get More Time to Have Say on MTA Plans: Audit

MTA workers at the Bedford Avenue L train station in September, 2019.
MTA workers at the Bedford Avenue L train station in September, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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The MTA should give the public and its board 45 days to weigh in on big-money spending plans, an independent audit found.

A draft of the audit’s recommendations, obtained by THE CITY, calls for the MTA to present its five-year capital spending proposal and its 20-year needs assessment at least 1 1/2 months before board approval.

That didn’t happen with the new record $51.5 billion capital plan to reshape mass transit in New York.

The plan — packed with big-ticket items, including 1,900 new subway cars, resignaling along parts of six subway lines and the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway — was approved by the MTA board in late September.

That was less than two weeks after an outline of the plan was publicly released.

“[The audit] validates the long-standing frustration with the MTA, particularly with soliciting public comment and input for the planning process of the capital plan,” said Veronica Vanterpool, an outgoing MTA board member.

Addressing the Skeptics

The deep dive into the MTA’s spending plan — by the accounting and consulting firm Crowe LLP at a cost of $884,000 — came after Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered an audit to address “skepticism” about the agency’s spending habits.

The aim was to “to identify costs that are beyond market norms or comparable costs in the private sector.”

“We do not want that skepticism to become an obstacle to the necessary investments and improvements the capital plan provides for the commuters of New York,” Cuomo wrote in an Oct. 7 letter to top MTA officials.

The audit will be presented Wednesday to the MTA Board at its monthly meeting.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Gov. Andrew Cuomo Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Auditors did not raise any red flags that could derail the not-yet-funded capital plan, which aims to overhaul the subway system and other parts of the regional transportation network.

“They confirmed that the substance of what’s in the capital plan makes sense and is valid,” Janno Lieber, head of MTA Construction and Development, told THE CITY.

The audit makes nine recommendations, including improving pricing estimates at an agency that’s been criticized for projects that take too long to complete and cost too much.

Lieber said cost-containment efforts are well underway at the MTA.

Changing Plans

Transit advocates have criticized the MTA’s pace in releasing the 2020-2024 capital plan and for not yet putting out an updated 20-year capital needs assessment, which was last issued in 2014.

The audit called on the MTA to establish a “governing body” to review the 20-year capital needs assessment and to change how capital projects are selected.

“That’s more than $51 billion in taxpayer money that’s going to be invested in the region’s infrastructure,” said Lisa Daglian, executive director of the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA. “There has to be a cohesive way the plan is put together.”

Lieber said the plan — which includes more than $5 billion to add elevators or ramps at 66 stations — was largely shaped by public meetings and town halls where agency officials heard repeatedly from frustrated commuters.

“There was a ton of public debate,” he said. “We heard a consistent message from the public at large.”

The audit also says the MTA needs to provide clearer and more frequent construction project updates through the online Capital Program Dashboard. Lieber agreed that’s a worthy goal.

“For people trying to do oversight of the MTA, it doesn’t show original budgets and schedules,” said Rachael Fauss, a senior analyst with the watchdog group Reinvent Albany, said of the dashboard. “It makes it look like projects are doing better than they are doing.”

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