Report Transportation

Working in the Dark

Implementation of the MTA's Capital Plan

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October 20, 2009

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) plays a critical role in making New York City’s economy function effectively. Of the 3.6 million people who arrive each weekday in Manhattan’s unique central business district, more than half rely on the MTA’s subways, buses and other facilities. New York City cannot sustain its dense labor market without its mass transit operations.

Keeping the subways, buses and commuter trains running involves far more than paying the workers who operate them. Mass transit services are capital intensive, and the MTA requires large capital investments in order to maintain its operations. Since 1982 the MTA has had a series of five-year capital plans that have grown from $7.7 billion in 1982-1986 to $22.6 billion in the current 2005- 2009 period and proposed to be $28.1 billion for 2010-2014. These investments are intended to bring the systems to a state of good repair after years of neglect, keep them in a state of good repair once the neglect is overcome, and expand and enhance operations.

Given the large, ongoing capital investments, the amount of borrowing needed to sustain them and the cost of this borrowing that is passed along to riders in the form of transit fares, it is reasonable for the public to ask how well the MTA spends this money. Do the projects in each five-year plan get implemented in accord with the budget and timetable in the plan?

This report seeks to address those questions through an examination of capital projects scheduled by the MTA for work in the three-year period from January 2005 to December 2007. This includes 798 projects with combined costs of $18.6 billion. The projects are divided among programmatic categories including communication and signal systems, stations, replacement of rolling stock, the “mega-projects” managed by the MTA’s Capital Construction Company, and other projects involving structures, shops and yards. We ask whether these projects were started on time, whether the planned work progressed in accord with the initial schedule, and whether the projects stay within the initial budget.

After intensive data collection efforts and interaction with MTA senior staff, we come to three conclusions:

  • The MTA board does not provide the public, or even collect for itself, sufficient information to determine whether the projects in the five-year plan are progressing in accord with the plan. Available reports do not cover all the projects in the plan, do not correspond to items and categories in the plan for covered items, and do not relate consistently to project milestones other than start and completion.
  • The limited information available for the projects indicates the MTA encounters significant delays in work of all types with major problems in the mega-projects and signal and communication projects, but notable delays also in less complex work such as the replacement of subway cars. Of the five mega-projects, only the South Ferry Terminal has progressed substantially in accord with schedule; three others are delayed by at least one year, and the Fulton Street Transit Center is currently set for 1 The mega-projects are East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, Flushing Line Extension, Fulton Street Transit Center, and South Ferry Terminal. 2 completion in 2014, five years behind schedule. Among the more troubled communications projects are those for public address/customer information services on the A Division (delayed over four years until 2010) and completion of the Automatic Train Supervision System on the A Division (more than three years behind plan). Replacement of 1,280 subway cars scheduled for completion in March 2008 was delayed eight months.
  • Many projects are completed close to initial cost estimates, but cost estimates are problematic for some megaprojects, and some important signal and communication projects are seriously over budget. The cost of the Fulton Street Transit Center is nearly 90 percent above the initial estimate, and the South Ferry terminal is 24 percent above the initial estimate; the other mega-projects are running 6 to 15 percent above initial estimates. Communication projects with large cost increases include Automatic Train Supervision (35 percent), customer information service on the Canarsie Line (55 percent), and computer based train control on the Canarsie Line (51 percent). In contrast, costs were only 4 percent above initial estimates for the replacement of subway cars and for 11 completed contracts covering the rehabilitation of 31 subway stations.

These findings have important implications for the MTA’s future capital investments. Its current five-year plan ends this year; a new five-year plan has been proposed by the Board for State approval for the 2010-2014 period. As the new plan progresses, three important changes should be made:

  1. The MTA should commit to an improved management information system for tracking capital projects and to greater transparency in informing the public about the status of its capital projects. The public should know how its money is being used. More information should be assembled centrally, it should be kept in a consistent format with clear milestones for assessing progress, and it should be made publicly available on the MTA’s website.
  2. The MTA should improve its capacity to manage mega-projects and improvements in signaling and communications systems. These are the areas of greatest delays and cost increases, and they account for $5.7 billion and $2.8 billion, respectively, in the proposed 2010-2014 capital plan. New procedures and an expanded pool of personnel with relevant expertise are urgently needed within the agency to manage these new projects effectively.
  3. The next five-year plan should be based on a realistic assessment of what can be accomplished. At the end of the 2000-2004 plan fully 365 projects costing over $4.8 billion, or more than one-quarter of the total plan, had not reached the stage expected when the plan was approved. Much of the work undertaken during the 2005-2007 period examined was for projects in the previous five-year plan. It is likely that a similar proportion of the work included in the current 2005- 2009 plan will have to be extended into future years. The new plan for 2010-2014 should be more realistic in anticipating the new work that can be accomplished and the funding needed to support it.

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Working in the Dark