The Breaking Point: ‘It’s Far Out Of Whack’

A WCBS 880 Special Report Series By Alex Silverman

NEW YORK (WCBS 880) – We’ve been over the ways modern infrastructure would help ease the crush of record ridership.

But there’s no doubt, the subway system needs to expand.

“Someone asked me today, ‘Is it necessary to have the Second Avenue subway?’” MTA Vice Chairman Fernando Ferrer told WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman. “Sure, it’s necessary! We have more people.”

Phase one – constructing three new stations – cost roughly $4.5 billion.

“It’s crazy. It’s far out of whack,” said Tom Wright, of the Regional Plan Association. “It’s basically four times more expensive for a mile of subway here in New York than it is in London.”

That doesn’t bode well. 

“It was supposed to be more than a dozen new stations. It was supposed to connect Brooklyn and the Bronx. I don’t know if we’re going to see that for a long time,” said Phil Plotch, who used to be the MTA’s manager of planning.

“So it used to be — you cut a big hole in the ground, and people had a few feet to walk. You fall in, you don’t fall in, who knows what happens,” he said. “But today we’re really sensitive to people, we’re really sensitive to the environment.”

“Gas lines – one false move and kaboom!” Ferrer added.

“You have some wires and cables that go back to Thomas Edison’s day,” Plotch continued.

“This is not like going into Dubai or Abu Dhabi, where you’re building in the middle of a desert. When no one is there, you can move the sand anywhere,” added Mitchell Moss, director of NYU’s Rudin Center for Transportation Policy.

The Breaking Point: The $8 Billion Question

But none of that explains why it’s so much more expensive to build here than in London, where it’s even older, or in Tokyo, where it’s just as dense.

“We also have high labor costs here. High labor costs because it’s an expensive city but also we have unions that aren’t necessarily the most efficient way to build a new subway,” Plotch explained.

And we’ve been building stations that are nice and big but more cavernous than they really need to be. On Second Avenue, the stations account for more than half the total budget.

“There’s no silver bullet on this,” Wright said.

The Breaking Point: Sorry State Of The Subway

So how can we make it more manageable?

“A big piece of this is time. If a project takes extra time to build, the escalation is pretty enormous,” Wright continued.

“We’re looking at a number of things, like design build,” Ferrer said.

That’s when a single contractor controls a more streamlined process.

“No matter what you do, you need a huge amount of money. So people are going to have to such it up if they want better transit service,” Plotch said.

When just this week, the MTA’s Managing Director Ronnie Hakim was asked whether the agency will address the out-of-whack construction costs, she would only say, “I’ll bring that back to the chair.”

If you’re wondering, phase two of the Second Avenue subway is projected to cost $6 billion, and we have no idea how it will be paid for.

Next week, we go above ground, where you might have noticed things are just as congested. Until then, safe travels.

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

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