Regional Plan Association Testimony at Joint Legislative Oversight Hearing on MTA 2020-2024 Capital Program

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today. My name is Kate Slevin and I am Senior Vice President of State Programs and Advocacy at Regional Plan Association.  RPA is a non-profit civic organization that conducts research, planning and advocacy to improve economic opportunity, mobility, and environmental sustainability in the NYC metropolitan region.

Since the MTA capital program was first established in 1982, RPA has been one of the strongest advocates for multiyear capital investments. RPA has helped lead campaigns to raise funding for each of these programs, including a new bond authorization in the early 2000s, and the state’s historic authorization of congestion pricing earlier this year, which will bring $15 billion toward the 2020-2024 capital program.

The importance of these multiyear programs cannot be overstated --  they are the vehicle that allowed the subway system to come back from years of disinvestment and neglect. And while much still needs to be improved, we need to recognize how far the transit system has come. The mean distance between failures in 1982 was around 8,000 miles; today it's around 130,000. Our city and region would not have the population, tourism, and economic activity it today without the projects and infrastructure that was funded as part of previous capital programs.

Our support for the MTA’s capital program continues today. We strongly believe population growth and immigration are of tremendous benefit to our city and region, but we need more service and more capacity on our transit system to allow this growth to occur.

We applaud the MTA $51 billion 2020-2024 capital program’s historic size and scope. In particular, we were thrilled to see an even greater investment in subway signals, elevators, and the bus system than NYC Transit’s original Fast Forward Plan, along with completion of East Side Access, LIRR third track, and Penn Access. Overall the capital program will allocate:

  • $40 billion will go to NYC transit, including $7 billion to signal improvements, $6 billion to clean modern buses, including 500 electric buses and other bus upgrades, and $5 billion to bring accessibility to 70 stations;
  • $5.7 billion to Long Island Rail Road including completion of East Side Access and LIRR third track;
  • $4.7 billion for Metro North including the Penn Access project, bringing Metro North into Penn Station and building four new stations in the Bronx.

This is also an upstate and green jobs program, bringing $75 billion in economic activity supporting 350,000 jobs across the state.

From a broader environmental perspective, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are reliant on enhancing our public transportation network. Transportation is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the state and nationally, and unfortunately, per capita transportation emissions in our region are growing, not declining. 

I would like to spend the rest of my testimony talking about a few particular issues we hope you will consider. 

First, our concerns over the MTA’s operating budget.

Congestion pricing will infuse the capital program with $15 billion, but it won’t do anything to help the operating deficit of the agency. Structural problems remain and without modifications to bring new revenue into the system, transit service could be cut at a time when we need more, not less.

State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli has said the MTA deficit could grow to $1.9 billion by 2023 without savings from the Transformation Plan. With the savings from the Transformation Plan, the budget gap still reaches $433 million by 2023.

Even though transit systems support economic growth and long-term investment, from a daily operating standpoint, they don’t make a profit. Fares only support a portion of the costs of running the system, and the rest is paid for by revenue from a series of state taxes including a portion of the sales tax, the mortgage recording tax, among others. We urge you to consider whether one or more of these revenue sources for the operating budget needs to be increased.

Second, support for MTA transformation plan and request for transparency as progress continues.

As regular critics of the MTA, we have noticed positive changes over the past year to 18 months. Under Janno Lieber, Pat Foye, Andy Byford and their staff, it is clear that the agency is trying to advance a complete restructuring that will reform the planning, development and delivery of projects. This can’t happen soon enough. The 2020-2024 capital program is 70% larger than the current capital program, so it will not be successful without drastic reforms that expedite project delivery and bring costs down. This may include strategies RPA has recommended, such as bundling numerous projects into one Design-Build contract to reduce costs, and using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to deliver projects.

As the agency moves forward on the capital program, we ask it to report its progress to the public regularly and seek public input from stakeholders and riders who depend on the system. 

Third, better MTA transparency and accountability.

Though progress has been made, we have long urged the MTA to do more to improve transparency.  This should include frequent public reporting on progress to bring construction costs down and on public engagement, along with an overhaul of the capital program dashboard. For example, the LIRR Main Line Third Track project is moving ahead under budget and ahead of schedule and has included over 100 public meetings, but rarely do you hear about these accomplishments in the media. 

And a new capital program dashboard, with easy to understand language and up to date project status, offers a near term opportunity to help improve the MTA’s public image. 

Fourth, a focus on equity.

The MTA provides a vital service New Yorkers, especially the majority of New York City households that cannot afford or choose not to own a car. We urge the MTA and you all here today to view the MTA capital and operating budgets through a lens of equity. For example, 97% of New Yorkers live within a ¼ mile of bus stop; far fewer live as close to the subway system. To improve equity, especially for vulnerable communities farther from trains, we must improve our bus system in the outer boroughs and provide more and better service. This will require partnering with NYC DOT to prioritize buses on streets in all five boroughs.

We also support policies that make fares easier to pay. All door boarding on buses, for example, universal fare payment/fare integration for all regional transit systems, and an expansion of the Atlantic Ticket pilot program. Technology can help solve many of these problems.

Fifth, there is not enough attention to Penn Station in the capital program.

RPA is increasingly worried about the safety and capacity of Penn Station. According to the state, it serves close to 700,000 daily passengers on commuter railroads and subways, over three times as many as it was built to accommodate, and it is often severely overcrowded. The MTA’s capital program has just $44 M for upgrades, mostly for state of good repair projects. These will only provide modest upgrades to much broader problems at the station that need to be addressed. RPA believes a first step to address this is the development of a long-term vision for the station and the surrounding district. We look forward to working with you to advance this.  

Sixth, consider RPA’s recommendations as congestion pricing is implemented.

RPA released a report in September with ten recommendations for congestion pricing implementation. We suggested implementing bus and bicycle improvements prior to implementation, installing two-way tolls, limiting exemptions, and found that higher tolls during peak periods delivered the greatest benefit. A full report is included with your testimony and we hope you will consider our recommendations moving forward.

Seventh, plan for sea level rise. 

We commend the MTA's commitment to completing critical post-Sandy resiliency projects. These will ensure a safer and more reliable system in the face of threats from storms and periodic coastal flooding. 

At the same time, we urge the MTA to comprehensively assess and plan for the longer term threat of sea level rise and the permanent flooding it will bring, putting miles of track at risk of complete inundation.

We also recommend that as New York State's landmark climate legislation - the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act - moves toward implementation, the MTA assess how it can support and be prepared for the transition to a future of zero-carbon electric power by 2040 and 85% economy-wide reductions in greenhouse gases by 2050. While these dates lie beyond the timeline of the current capital plan, the time to plan for that transition is today.

What can the Assembly and Senate do to advance these goals?

To close, I’d like to thank you all again for hosting this hearing, and offer a few  more suggestions on more ways the Legislature can help improve transparency and help create a better transit network through the MTA capital program. We hope you will consider: 

  • Appointing Capital Program Review Board members to allow for approval of the capital program;
  • Working with the Governor to set up the six-person Traffic Mobility Review Board to offer recommendations for congestion pricing, including limiting any exemptions to the program which will only increase the burden on others;
  • Working with MTA and DOT on plans to improve transit and bike improvements before and after implementation of congestion pricing. New York City’s new Street Master Plan will deliver 250 miles of bike infrastructure and 150 bus lanes over five years – implementation will be difficult and deserves support from you and your colleagues;
  • And finally, a public report on how the $50 million dedicated to the Outer Borough Transportation Fund is being used. 

Thank you for your time. Regional Plan Association will continue to be a resource for your work going forward.