The five-year, $51.5 billion capital plan approved by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s board on Wednesday is the largest in MTA history—some $18 billion larger than its previous plan. It promises to fund new signals on 11 subway lines, add nearly 2,000 new subway cars, create a few new stations and make dozens of them more accessible as well as launch the next phase of the Second Avenue Subway.
On Wednesday’s Max & Murphy Show on WBAI, Manhattan Institute transit analyst Nicole Gelinas hailed the arrival of an on-time capital plan (the previous one was more than a year late) that is “fairer to New York City.”
“Since we started building things in 2000 [the city has] only gotten about half of capital money for expansion. This time around the city is getting about 78 percent of the money in the capital plan,” she said. What’s more, this plan is “putting significant money behind a new subway signal system,” Gelinas said. “That’s one of the most important things, probably the most important.”
The fact that transit chief Andy Byford is happy about the plan is “a good sign,” Gelinas added, and the promise to make 70 subway stations more accessible to people with mobility impairments not only helps thousands who use wheelchairs, walkers or canes but also “opens up the system to people who have baby carriages, people who have suitcases, children, people who can’t walk very fast.”
But for all its positives, the plan doesn’t answer all the questions facing the MTA over its finances or ability to achieve its ambitions.
Financing for the capital plan depends partly on congestion pricing—a system that has yet to be fully designed—generating enough money for the MTA to service the bonds it plans to secure with that revenue. Built into the capital plan is also a hope for federal funding, which could float or sink depending on national politics and the U.S. economy. And there’s a gap that the MTA will need to fill using regular bonds, which could be a tough lift given the hefty debt load the agency already carries.
Another question is whether the MTA can spend the money it finds. “It’s a little bit of a myth that the MTA says, ‘We’re going to invest $51.5 billion over the next five years,'” Gelinas said. “They’ve proven over and over that they really can’t make this work in five years.” The current capital plan, which covered 2014 through 2019, totalled $33 billion. “Of that,” Gelinas said, “they’ve only spent about $13 billion.”
Then there are the operational realties. Adding new trains and stations is great but it then requires additional, ongoing funding to operate all that new equipment, Gelinas noted. And while the capital work is under way, service is temporarily likely to get worse, not better. “Unfortunately, if we’re going to modernize, we will see a lot more weekend and night time shut downs.”
(With reporting by Xavier Means)
Hear our conversation with Gelinas below, or listen to the full program, which includes an interview with Stanley Fritz of Citizen Action NY about the debate over fusion voting: