Regional Plan Association Report Identifies Ways to Cut MTA Construction Costs

Today the Regional Plan Association released a report containing suggestions for improving the efficiency of the MTA’s operations and construction costs. The report adds quantifiable evidence to support what we already know: New York City is building less rail and taking far more time to do so than other cities due to inefficiencies in its construction implementation. Currently, the subway is only on time 65% of the time, and overcrowding and signal troubles cost workers $864,000 a day in lost time. As of 2017, New York City’s construction costs are two to five times larger than other cities that by far outpace it in miles of track laid down. If nothing is done, then the subway will remain at its rail capacity from 1937, public mistrust of the MTA will continue, and financially and logistically inefficient construction will further justify skepticism of a transit system that is in significant need of overhaul. We support the quick adaptation of these reforms, which could increase the MTA’s financial efficiency by as much as 33%.

RPA’s report highlights the MTA’s fallback in finances and planning, political interference, environmental rules, and work laws. The Second Avenue Subway cost $807 million per mile, for 4 miles. At $5.5 billion total, it is the most expensive in track addition in the world. New York has indeed cemented its place as the most costly construction site in the world. This is in part due to the 19th century scaffold law, which exclusively blames landowners for a fall, resulting in an increase in construction costs by 7% due to the applicable insurance rates, and inaccurate estimates of deadlines and costs. When constructing the East Side Access line, the price tag skyrocketed from 6.1 billion to $10.2 billion over the last 10 years, resulting in New York City cancelling construction of a planned station on the line. On the environmental surveying of plans, the City also dawdles too long: each review takes 84 months, whereas the most successful transit systems take 18-24 months.

In response, RPA calls for realistic budgets and timelines; streamlining the environmental reviews; advanced notice about shutdowns (see the L train from Hurricane Sandy-related damages); design-build for extensions in which one firm, independent of the MTA, takes charge of the construction; and separating union-labor requirements for major projects outside of the MTA’s operating budget and MTA projects to streamline them. These changes could, if implemented, could save the MTA more money than would be raised by a congestion pricing scheme. While we should absolutely do both, it will be easier to justify allocating a new revenue stream to the MTA if we can trust that it will do a better job spending the money it already has. 

In the big and small picture RPA’s report is a timely indicator that both the subway and New York have not been running on time for a long time. The construction inefficiencies in the MTA inspire public mistrust, and further systemic breakdowns in planning and environmental surveys further press the point home: New York has fallen far behind other cities in transit. Until the MTA addresses concerns about its efficiency and communication, it cannot maintain its ridership and justify increasing its rider fee. Thus, NYLCV urges the MTA carefully consider RPA’s recommendations and take action to address its inefficiencies. New York’s future is at stake.