Op Ed Transportation

The MTA's Closely Guarded Secret

New Yorkers should be told how much it would cost to fix the entire transit system

December 19, 2017

Read the original op-ed in Crain's New York Business.

At next month’s State of the State address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo is expected to unveil a congestion-pricing proposal that would generate a dedicated funding stream for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. A panel of experts, elected officials and other stakeholders have been tasked with developing this plan; no revenue target has been made public but proposals floated recently by transit advocacy groups aim to generate $1 billion a year.

Congestion pricing is important and should be adopted, for environmental and business reasons as well as for the revenue it can provide. But, in order to evaluate the governor's proposal, the public and its elected representatives ought to know how much investment is actually necessary to keep the region’s mass transit system running. While it is well known that many elements of the MTA's infrastructure are in disrepair, information on the full extent and true cost to fix it is lacking.

A full accounting of the state of the system helped the MTA make its case for more resources when the system teetered on collapse in the early 1980s. Prior to developing its first capital program in 1981, the agency, led by then-Chairman Richard Ravitch, inventoried the condition of each component and estimated the cost to repair and restore the entire system. This "needs assessment" demonstrated the gravity of the system’s condition and the unprecedented sums required to restore it. It was key to winning legislative support for the program.

Recent needs assessments—developed every five years ahead of the subsequent capital plan—have been planning documents, not comprehensive reports of the system’s condition. They are developed based upon the assumptions that the agency will receive less funding than needed and that only the projects and areas that are regarded as priorities will be addressed. While prioritizing is a necessity in a world of finite resources, a full accounting of the mass transit system's condition and the costs needed to achieve a full state of good repair should still be made—and made public.

There is a model for the MTA to follow. Section 1110-a of the New York City Charter requires the mayor to develop and make public an Asset Information Management System Report, also known as AIMS, that is updated annually. It includes a full inventory of all agencies' capital assets, including for each component, the date of construction or reconstruction, original cost, and a professional assessment of its remaining useful life and replacement cost. This assessment includes a schedule of the costs of activities necessary to maintain each asset and prevent its deterioration. Though the city's approach to AIMS has not always lived up to the charter's mandate, AIMS still provides a helpful model for the MTA.

The governor's agenda for the coming legislative session should include mandating that an AIMS report be prepared and regularly updated by the MTA.

Without knowing what it would cost to fix the system, investment will be driven by the funds available and not by the actual needs. Moreover, costly system expansions—such as the Main Line Third Track, new routes to Penn Station and phase two of the Second Avenue subway—are considered as ends in themselves, not in the context of and in comparison to the billions of dollars in unmet state-of-good-repair needs.

A full accounting of the mass transit system's ongoing needs would help lawmakers develop funding strategies for the MTA. Whether it is about operating subsidies to support the agency's subway action plan or capital investments to procure new subway cars and replace World War II-era signals, the debate over funding should be fully informed by an understanding of the infrastructure’s current condition and the true cost of fixing it.

Without it, lawmakers and the public are working in the dark.