On Aug. 10, the fourth anniversary of the late New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman Robert Kiley’s passing, let us not forget and those who followed in him in spending $128 billion under past multi-year capital programs.
In May 1981, MTA Chairman Richard Ravitch wrote a lette r to then Gov. Hugh Carey, members of the New York State Legislature, along with NYC Mayor Ed Koch. He asked that prompt action be taken to meet the increasingly desperate situation of public transit in New York. It was a time when subway and bus ridership was falling due to track fires, equipment failures, chronic delays, growing crime and out of control graffiti.
In June 1981, the Legislature responded. They passed and Carey signed into law the Transportation System Assistance and Financing Act of 1981. This gave the MTA legal authority to issue bonds for funding. In the following September, the first modern MTA five-year capital program totaling $7.2 billion was approved. This began the rebuilding of NYC’s subway and bus systems. Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads quickly followed.
One of then Gov. Mario Cuomo’s best transportation decisions was his appointment of Kiley as MTA chairman. Kiley was the longest serving MTA chairman holding the position between November 1983 and January 1991.
Kiley oversaw a major restoration of a transit system that was on the decline. Under his watch, MTA New York City Transit invested in new subway cars and buses, upgraded subway stations, tracks and signals along with improving on-time performance. This resulted in a significant increase in ridership. Elimination of graffiti, especially on subway cars, was a top priority. He also brought on board Bill Bratton as chief of NYC’s Transit Police to improve safety. He supported planning initiatives for the foundation to advance MTA NYC Transit’s fare system from tokens to the Metro Card.
As MTA chairman, Kiley was also successful in winning several billion dollars in grants from the Urban Mass Transportation Administration. Washington played a major role in paying for many capital improvements. Following the historic 1982 – 1986 effort under Kiley, MTA capital programs for 1987–1991, 1992–1999, 2000–2004, 2005–2009, 2010–2014 and 2015-2919 funding totaled $128 billion.
Federal support for transportation continued to remain consistent and growing over past decades. When a crises occurred, be it 9/11 in 2001, Super Storm Sandy in 2012 or COVID-19 in 2020, Washington was there for us. Additional billions in assistance above and beyond yearly formula allocations from the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration (prior to 1991 known as the Urban Mass Transportation Administration) were provided. In 2009 the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided billions more.
Most federal transportation grants require a 20 percent hard-cash local share. In many cases, FTA accepted toll credits instead of hard cash for the local share. This saved the MTA $1 billion in the previous 2015-2019 five-year capital program. It resulted in FTA paying 100 percent of the real cost for federally funded capital projects and programs. The same, if not more will be true with the 2020-2024 five-year capital program.
Washington has made available $1.4 billion in 2020 FTA formula funding for the MTA. This helps pays for a significant percent of its capital program. Upon adoption of the next federal budget on Oct. 1 (This assumes Congress does its job for a change and passes a budget on time for the president to sign.), there will be approximately $1.5 billion in 2021 FTA formula funding for the MTA. There are other opportunities for up to several hundred million more every year in discretionary competitive grants. The MTA has an excellent track record vs. other transit agencies around the nation in winning various discretionary competitive grants.
Over the same time period, both New York State (Albany) and New York City (City Hall) continued to reduce hard cash financial assistance. They both insisted the MTA borrow billions more to fund Five Year Capital Programs. This has resulted today in 20 percent of the MTA annual program being spent on debt payments rather than real capital project and program improvements along with increasing operating services.
(Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island and Metro North Rail Roads, MTA Bus, NYC Department of Transportation along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ)