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Group Wants to Shed More Light on MTA Budget Busters

Second Avenue Subway construction in 2014.
Contractors work on a Second Avenue Subway tunnel.
Photo: Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transit Authority

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The MTA’s elimination of quarterly reports that publicly tracked big-money boosts to contracts makes it tougher to flag the transit agency’s cost overruns, a watchdog group charges.

The transparency advocacy organization Reinvent Albany on Tuesday emailed a letter to MTA board members asking them to restore the reports, which from January 2018 to June 2019 alone flagged $153 million worth of upward adjustments to contracts initially valued at $9.5 billion.

The group noted 394 changes to a single contract for work on the new Second Avenue Subway — and a $491 million overall increase to what had been a $140 million deal for work on East Side Access, the Long Island Rail Road terminal being built deep beneath Grand Central.

“This is a basic transparency issue, but it’s a step backwards,” Rachael Fauss, a senior research analyst at Reinvent Albany, told THE CITY. “These are public dollars and the board is responsible for making sure they get the most bang for their buck for taxpayers and riders.”

Small Change Adds Up

Until last June, when the MTA board eliminated the quarterly reports, changes to existing contracts were listed in documents posted to the agency’s website every three months.

Now board members only are asked to approve so-called change orders that top $1 million. The change order reports were first provided to MTA board members in 2013, when the approval threshold was $750,000.

“One change might be small, but when you take them together, it can really add up,” Fauss said. “The board and the public should be able to see the totality of the changes.”

East Side Access tunnel
Workers construct a tunnel for the East Side Access project.
Patrick Cashin/Metropolitan Transit Authority

In June, the last quarterly report to the MTA’s Capital Projects Oversight Committee noted $2.6 million in increases over the first quarter of 2019 for five Second Avenue Subway contracts for track, signal and power work and finishes to the 72nd Street stop on the Q line. The contracts initially had a combined value of $1.3 billion.

“The board members get fare evasion reports, they get crime statistics, they get overtime reports,” said Fauss. “Change order reports would seem to be equally important.”

‘More Streamlined’

An MTA spokesperson countered that the agency is now using a “more streamlined” approach through quarterly “traffic light reports” that grade projects by costs and schedule. Those marked “red,” according to the MTA, are projects where one or more indicators have exceeded a specified bar.

But the traffic light reports in MTA board documents lack some details that were previously highlighted, including the number of modifications to a contract.

The system overhaul came three months before the transit agency outlined plans to spend a record $51 billion on its next five-year capital plan to upgrade the transit system.

The quarterly change order reports, according to the MTA spokesperson, generated more paperwork for board members but not much discussion among them. Multiple MTA board members told THE CITY that the individual change order reports were often about smaller contracts.

“There are so many changes that I don’t know how reliable these reports are,” Andrew Albert, an MTA board member who represents the New York City Transit Riders Council, said of the old quarterly reports.

Reinvent Albany wants all contract changes of at least $250,000 to be reported to the MTA board, which meets Thursday.

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