The Breaking Point: The $8 Billion Question

A WCBS 880 Special Report Series By Alex Silverman

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – For many New York subway riders, what MTA Chairman Joe Lhota said last week was welcome, if obvious.

“We’ve got to take this system and get it out of the late 19th century and into the 21st century as quickly as we possibly can,” he announced.

It’s too bad his $800 million emergency plan admitted won’t do that. It will just stabilize the system.

What will it take to actually get the technology to modern standards?

“That number scares me,” Lhota said. “This is what I think the next capital plan is going to look like: close to $8 billion.” 

While that sinks in, consider this from NYU’s Mitchell Moss.

“There is no money which can deal with the fact that the system delays the actually implementation of things. We’re talking too long to buy subway cars, to do signalization,” he says.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo put it more bluntly.

“The procurement process in the MTA is some diabolical process designed to inflict pain and torture people,” Cuomo said earlier this year.

At the rate we’re going, it cannot take five years to build a subway car and 40 years to deploy a new signal system.

“That’s a non-starter,” the governor said.

The Breaking Point: Sorry State Of The Subway

Which is why the governor has suspended the procurement rules, which most experts see as a good call.

Even it we cut the red tape, how can we possibly get all the work done on one of the world’s only 24-hour transit systems?

“I don’t have an answer for that,” says Randy Glucksman, who was once an MTA official and wrote the orders for track shutdowns. Now, he sits on the agency’s board. “Perhaps taking more tracks out of service, shutting down lines, which is not a popular suggestions. These things have a very long lead time.”

As of now, Lhota says he does not expect to “shut whole systems down.”

But don’t bet against more extended closures, like the one that’s looming with the L train.

“We see this around the world. Other cities do this too,” says the Regional Plan Association’s Tom Wright. “To say, ‘rather than many, many years of really poor service, shut it down for an extended period of time, and in the long term we’ll be better served by it.’ That’s a painful decision for anyone commuting in from Brooklyn to hear about a full shutdown, but the MTA is making the right choice.”

Meanwhile, as we try to catch up to what we needed yesterday, we’ll also tackle a bigger question: Why does it cost so darn much in this city to build for tomorrow?

“I think it’s four times more expensive for a mile of subway here than it is in London,” Wright says.

More on that next time. Until then, safe travels.

Find more from “The Breaking Point” by clicking here.

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