MTA Chairman Pledges $29.5B Capital Plan Will Finally Bring System Into 21st Century

John Jordan | July 2016

RYE BROOK—Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast admitted that the New York City mass transit system had fallen behind in terms of repairing and upgrading its infrastructure as well as implementing the latest technology to ensure the safety of its passengers. However, with a $29.5-billion five-year capital program now in place, the agency can now play catch up and finally enter the 21st Century.

Prendergast, who has spent his entire 40-year career in the public transportation sector, spoke before members of the Business Council of Westchester at it headquarters at 800 Westchester Ave. in Rye Brook last month. Prendergast during his presentation entitled “Bringing the MTA Into the 21st Century” talked about the market forces, particularly population growth, demographics (the burgeoning Millennial group) and changing commutation patterns, that require the MTA and its commuter rail line in the Hudson Valley—Metro North—to make capital investments to “renew enhance and expand” its services.

The final approved $27-billion capital plan, along with another nearly $3 billion in self-funded bridge and tunnel improvement and repair projects financed by MTA Bridges and Tunnels, will bring total MTA capital investment to nearly $30 billion over the next five years.

Prendergast related the bumpy ride the MTA system has been on since the early 1980s when subway derailments were almost a daily occurrence, graffiti was on every inch of every subway car and the nation’s worst system provider at the time was Metro North’s predecessor Conrail.

“The system was out of control,” he recalled. Over the next 30 years, Prendergast said, “Metro North became best of class. Best of Class in the Western Hemisphere—the best service, the best customer service, the best performance—and we lost it. It is so difficult to achieve, easy to lose and it is hard to regain.”

Metro North President Joseph J. Giulietti and his staff are now working to ensure the safety of the system is right and is also engaged in bringing performance back to the levels that made it Best of Class, he related.

He praised Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio for working with the MTA and for the state and city to agree to make significant financial commitments to the capital plan. New York State has committed $8.3 billion, while New York City is expected to contribute approximately $2.5 billion, to the MTA capital program for the $1-trillion MTA transit system.

Prendergast noted that while there was some political wrangling between Gov. Cuomo, Mayor de Blasio and legislative leaders prior to the approval of the capital plan, he said that New York State “when it comes to funding, is one of the only systems that gets it right.”

“It is a tough enough system to run, but if you don’t have the money to run it, it is almost impossible,” he added.

Prendergast said that recent capital programs were successful in keeping the MTA system in a state of good repair. The latest capital program will not only provide funding to make necessary repairs, but also will enhance and expand its services and introduce new technology to provide easier access to its services and key information for commuters.

Another key element to the capital plan, in response to the tragic train derailment at Spuyten Deveil in the Bronx in December 2013 and the fatal rail crossing accident at Commerce Street in Valhalla in February 2015, is the implementation of the federally mandated Positive Train Control system. The safety technology will cost more than $1 billion to implement by the end of 2018 to both Metro North and Long Island Railroad systems.

The capital program is critical because the population is expected grow significantly. Prendergast said that New York City’s population is expected to grow by one million residents by 2035 and an additional one million residents will be added to MTA’s suburban service region during that period. He noted that Metro North’s annual ridership has grown 71% over the past 20 years, while system-wide ridership has increased more than 51%.

Other demographic or ridership changes have included significant increases in reverse peak commutation, intra-county commutation as well as ridership on nights and weekends. The MTA mass transit system is no longer a predominately 9-5 service, but has been transformed to 24-7-365, he related. At the moment, both Metro North and Long Island Railroad ridership are at record highs.

Prendergast added that while Millennials are flocking to the region’s urban centers and are demanding state-of-the-art transit services, many aging Baby Boomers are retiring and opting to remain in the region and are utilizing mass transit in increasing numbers as well.

He highlighted some of the key elements of the MTA capital program, of which $2.3 billion has been earmarked for Metro North Railroad. In terms of the Metro North-related projects, Prendergast noted that five stations will receive significant improvements—125th St. (Harlem), Riverdale, Crestwood, White Plains and Port Chester. He also stressed that new technology will be added to enhance customer service. Train stations will be improved to enhance connectivity in order to provide real-time information. MTA’s e-Tix service where customers can purchase tickets via their mobile devices is now available on the Hudson Line and was introduced the week of July 25th on the Harlem line, and the week of August 22nd  on the New Haven line.

Another new element to the MTA capital program is the launch of the $700-million Penn Access project that will open a new Metro-North Railroad link directly into Penn Station, providing connectivity for commuters on the New Haven Line into the growing West Side (West Side Yards) of Manhattan. The project will also provide critical system resiliency to protect service for more than 275,000 daily customers in the event of natural or other disasters. Prendergast cited the recent fire underneath the Park Avenue viaduct. He said the MTA “was exceptionally lucky” that the fire did not cause further damage that would have then resulted in a prolonged disruption of service.

Another facet of the capital plan involves what he described as “transformative change” to bring projects on-line quickly and more efficiently. The MTA’s theme “Get in, get done and get out” will embrace new ways to deliver projects, including Design-Build.

Supports Gateway Tunnel Project

Prendergast said the proposed $20-billion Amtrak Gateway Tunnel is critical to the region’s mass transit service due to the projected increase in mass transit ridership in coming years

He noted that the system requires the additional two tubes to be built under the Hudson River to replace two existing tunnels damaged by Hurricane Sandy.

“Right now you’ve got three railroads sharing 21 tracks and all of the railroads are experiencing increases in ridership,” Prendergast said. “So the Gateway project not only provides two additional tunnels under the Hudson River, but additional capacity at Penn Station itself, which is important.”

 

From left, Richard Haggerty, HGAR CEO, Thomas Prendergast,  MTA Chairman and CEO and John Ravitz, executive vice president and COO of The Business Council of Westchester.

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth