Readers Write: MTA needs to change focus, use money better

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It will require more prudent use of existing dollars and a change in priorities for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to solve recent problems with both the New York City Transit subway system and Long Island Rail Road access to and from Penn Station.

The appointment of past MTA Chairman Joe Lhota to assume his old position is a mixed blessing.

The good news is no doubt that as MTA Chairman and CEO between November 2011 to December 2012,  he did a great job bringing MTA transportation back from the damages brought by Super Storm Sandy.

Lhota’s previous experiences at the MTA and at City Hall serving as New York City Finance Commissioner, Office of Management and budget director and deputy mayor for operations under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani position him to hit the ground running.

The bad news is that it is disappointing to learn that he will retain his position as a senior vice president of NYU Lagone Medical Center.

Now, more than ever his MTA assignment is a full time job well beyond the standard 9 to 5 hours most New Yorkers work.  Lhota can’t serve two employers at the same time.

Transit riders, taxpayers, transit advocates and elected officials can accept no less.

Lhota will first have to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo to come up with the outstanding balance of $5.8 billion that he still owes toward the $8.3 billion shortfall to fully fund the $32 billion 2015-2019 MTA Five Year Capital Plan.

The MTA can’t afford to wait until 2018 or 2019 for both $5.8 billion and additional $1 billion recently pledged by Cuomo in response to the ongoing subway and LIRR Penn Station crises.

Ditto for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to deliver the balance of $2.5 billion which he also pledged to finance the same plan.

Next, have MTA reprogram $695 million Metro North East Bronx Penn Station Access, $1.7 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2 & $1.95 billion LIRR Main Line Third Track to help fund upgrading NYCT Subway System and LIRR Penn Station Signals.

This would provide over $3 billion as a down payment against $20 billion needed to bring NYCT Subway System Signals up to a state of good repair.

All three cancelled projects can be funded out of the next MTA 2020-2024 Five Year Capital Plan.

This still provides ample time for both Metro North East Bronx Penn Station Access and LIRR Main Line Third Track project completions to coincide with LIRR East Side Access to Grand Central Terminal by December 2023 or 2024.

Perhaps it is time for the MTA and New York City DOT to stop wasting millions of dollars on transportation feasibility studies for future system expansion projects costing billions that will never happen on our life time.

Do not initiate any new system expansion projects until the MTA and each operating agency, including New York City Transit bus and subway, MTA bus, Long Island Rail Road and Metro North Rail Road have reached a state of good repair for existing fleet, stations, signals, interlockings, track, power, yards and shops.

Ensure that maintenance programs for all MTA operating agencies assets are fully funded and completed on time to ensure riders reliable service.

Starting in 1981, under past MTA Five Year Capital Plans, both the city and state collectively cut billions of their own respective financial contributions.

They repeatedly had the MTA refinance or borrow funds to acquire scarce capital funding formerly made up by hard cash from both City Hall and Albany.

On a bipartisan basis, this included past governors Mario Cuomo (Dem.), George Pataki (GOP), Elliot Spitzer (Dem.) and David Patterson (Dem.).

Cuomo continues to honor this practice.

His amendment to increase the MTA $29 billion MTA Five Year 2015-2019 Capital Program Plan by $3 billion to $32 billion is financed by increasing long term MTA debt $1.6 billion.

This was appproved by the MTA Board but still requires approval by the Albany MTA Capital Program Review Board.

That body is made up of one representative each from the governor, mayor, state Assembly speaker and state Senate Majority Leader. The mayor’s representative can only vote on NYC projects.

All Cuomo has done is restore $3 billion cut from the original proposed $32 billion MTA Five Year Capital Plan (which he previously referred to as bloated and unnecessary) from 2015.

Most dollars including $1.95 billion for LIRR Main Line Third Track and $700 million for Second Avenue Subway Phase Two are going toward system expansion projects versus solving more critical state of good repair projects and programs today.

Too many career politicians for over 36 years have insisted that the MTA continue financing more and more of the Capital Program by borrowing.  This is no different today.

As a result, 17 percent of the annual MTA budget goes for covering the costs of debt service payments.

By the next MTA Five Year 2020-2024 Capital Program Plan, it will grow closer to 20 percent.

This means less money is available for operations to provide more frequent and safe service to riders.  It also means there is less money just to maintain the state of good repair, safety and basic day to day service that riders desire.

There is $432 million available under a U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Super Storm Sandy grant approved in 2016 for repairs to Penn Station East River Tunnels including signal upgrades.

Amtrak has said they will not be able to begin this work until 2020!

MTA, on behalf of the LIRR which was awarded the federal grant funding, has not committed to spending these dollars on this critical tunnel work.

How can elected officials and transit advocates have any credibility in claiming Washington is shortchanging us when these dollars may not be used for four years?

Larry Penner

Great Neck

(Larry Penner is a transportation historian and advocate who previously worked 31 for U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 NY Office.)  

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