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Capital Losses: Major Subway and Bus Projects Falling by Wayside in MTA’s Pandemic Budget Crunch

Riders wait for elevators at the Clark Street station in Brooklyn Heights, Nov. 17, 2020.
Riders wait for elevators at the Clark Street station in Brooklyn Heights, Nov. 17, 2020.
Jose Martinez/THE CITY

The MTA is running off track on awarding contracts for work on 26 major capital projects — from subway bridge repairs to new buses — primarily due to the pandemic, agency documents show.

The delays, transit advocates say, threaten to stymie much-needed maintenance in many cases, costing taxpayers hundreds of millions of extra dollars in the long run.

The snags to long-planned upgrades mark another measure of how the coronavirus crisis has hit the transit agency, whose officials will warn again Wednesday at an MTA board meeting of massive cuts to service and planned system upgrades should $12 billion dollars in federal funding fail to materialize.

Stalled projects from the MTA’s previous five-year capital improvement plans include:

  • Replacing 20 escalators and 19 elevators in subway stations
  • Making Americans With Disabilities Act improvements at 24 subway, Staten Island Railway and commuter railroad stops
  • Overcoat painting and steel repairs to 17 bridges along the No. 5 line’s elevated structure in The Bronx
  • Ordering 223 new hybrid-electric and standard buses

The delays are outlined in a monthly MTA report about the agency’s capital projects.

“Elevator replacement, structural painting and new buses are all core maintenance needs,” said Ben Fried of TransitCenter, an advocacy organization. “Delaying work on these projects now will mean more frequent breakdowns and higher maintenance costs later.”

‘Nothing Gets Cheaper’

Many of the delays, according to the MTA, can be pinned directly on the financial fallout from COVID-19, which has resulted in billions of dollars in shortfalls from fare, toll and tax revenues.

In June, the agency indefinitely extended a freeze, in place since the start of the pandemic, on projects from previous capital plans, as well as the not-yet-funded $51 billion 2020-2024 capital program.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has previously touted how reduced ridership allowed for accelerating some projects during the pandemic.

“The bottom line is that until we get more funding clarity from the federal government, we will continue to hold on most new awards and only accelerate already funded work where possible,” said Andrei Berman, an MTA spokesperson.

MTA workers prepare for a project at the Smith-9th Street Station in Brooklyn, Nov. 17, 2020.
MTA workers prepare for a project at the Smith-9th Street Station in Brooklyn, Nov. 17, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Through October, the MTA has awarded $4.1 billion in contracts for capital projects, less than half of the $10 billion it had planned to spend — pre-pandemic — by this point in the year. The slip in schedule is forcing $8.1 billion in commitments to be moved to 2021, records show.

The change comes with a cost, too, with the projected price tags on some of the projects expected to increase — some by more than $100 million, according to the MTA report.

“Nothing gets cheaper the longer you wait,” said Andrew Albert, who represents the New York City Transit Riders Council on the MTA board.

A Step Backward for Accessibility

Among the stalled projects are the replacement of elevators — including three at Brooklyn’s Clark Street stop on the 2/3 line that have been plagued by outages and entrapments.

In February, the MTA announced plans to close the Clark Street stop for eight months so all three elevators could be replaced at once, shortening what could have been a two-year project. Riders at the station use the lifts to shuttle to and from a mezzanine level that leads to stairs connecting to the platform.

“You can’t get down to the station any other way, so maintaining them and eventually replacing them is absolutely essential,” said Usha Berlin, 78, who uses the station regularly.

The pandemic, according to the MTA documents, is also blamed for delays in awarding a contract for eventual ADA-related upgrades at the Westchester Square-East Tremont Avenue stop along the No. 6 line in The Bronx.

The projected $94 million cost is expected to rise by $4 million, MTA records show, because of a change in the scope of the work.

Colin Wright, also of TransitCenter, expressed concern that accessibility projects could fall by the wayside during a financial crunch.

“Riders with disabilities have waited long enough for the MTA to make these stations accessible,” he said.

The COVID-driven economic collapse has also further slowed a long-delayed plan to add elevators to the 68th Street Hunter College stop along the No. 6 line in Manhattan.

Even prior to the pandemic, that project had already been hampered by community opposition and additional architectural, structural, electrical and utility relocation work that is expected to increase costs.

“COVID uncertainty is not the only cost driver,” Wright said. “The cost of more than a few projects increased due to old-fashioned unfavorable bids, additional scope and project complexity.”

Looking for a DC Charge

MTA officials have said the election of Joe Biden as president “bodes well” for public transit, while conceding the agency faces significant hurdles.

“Every schoolchild in the country knows that he is called ‘Amtrak Joe’ and that he rode it regularly between Wilmington and Washington D.C. when he was a senator,” MTA Chairperson Patrick Foye said Tuesday.

In a amNewYorkMetro op-ed this week, Foye wrote that the looming change in administration “has injected much-needed optimism” into efforts to secure $12 billion in funding.

“There is reason for optimism,” Albert said. “President-elect Biden has shown great interest and appreciation for the nation’s inter-city rail network, as well as mass transit networks nationwide.”

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