Doctoroff Sets Stage for Something Bold, Creative & Expensive

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Yesterday, Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff and MTA President Lee Sander delivered a pair of one-two speeches at the annual meeting of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. Sadly, the report I wrote up yesterday afternoon was eaten by my blog software. It was really good too. Much more entertaining than this one. What are you gonna do?

Sander, who is a huge breath of fresh air for the MTA, started off by bantering with Vision42’s George Haikalis and some other activist types to whom you can’t imagine former MTA president Peter Kalikow even giving the time of day. The meat of Sander’s presentation was a long list of multi-billion dollar transit
mega-projects currently planned or underway in New York City. That set
up Doctoroff’s speech which , essentially, said: We need all of that stuff. How are we going to pay for it?

It is not clear that Doctoroff has the answer just yet. He hinted that major, regional transportation policy plans were in the works and would be announced as
part of Mayor Bloomberg’s Long-Term Planning and Sustainability speech
in April. While it’s not clear exactly what specific policy ideas are
coming, one thing is for certain: It’s going to be expensive.

Doctoroff wound up the speech by reminding people that the city we enjoy today is here because the generations before us planned for growth and made the tough decisions on how to pay for it:

When we break ground for the Second Avenue, it will be the third ground breaking for the same project. In the past, people have been confident that the money would come from somewhere. So confident that they went ahead and tore down the Third Ave El in anticipation of the Second Ave subway. In short, we need to recognize that the money is going to have to come from somewhere. And if we don’t yet know exactly where, it’s a good indication that we may not get what we want.

New Yorkers often thank the previous generations who created a street grid for a city of a million, at a time when New York only had a hundred thousand residents; who built a massive Central Park at a time when few lived above 23rd Street; who built a water system with the capacity to last for centuries; and who built the subway system that we rely on today.

But we seldom think about the fact that those New Yorkers made the decision not only to do those things, but to pay for them as well. In all of those cases, New Yorkers argued over who should pay what, but ultimately settled on financing approaches that were based on the principle that those who benefited should contribute.


Those New Yorkers were willing to make sacrifices for the good of the City and to secure their future. Now its our turn. We must be similarly bold and creative as we approach the transportation challenges of the 21st century.

  • TG

    Our situation is not unique. We’re hardly the only part of the country that’s experiencing growth pains. On a percentage basis, we’re growing a lot more slowly than other major metro regions. Those places are facing similar challenges about how to finance the infrastructure they need for growth. The one major difference is that in many of those other regions (especially in the West), political leaders have been willing to step forward and say: infrastructure is vital to our economic prosperity… here’s how we should pay for it. In New York, until recently, all we’ve seen are promises to spend money without any concrete plans for how to raise it. Hopefully Bloomberg can provide some leadership here, stick his neck out, and put a plan on the table. He will no doubt face some political pain for doing so, but hopefully the civic groups will provide him with political cover.

  • Of course, Doctoroff also compared the 2nd Ave. subway to the debacle that is the Freedom Tower and said “We’ve seen how these things play out before.” That’s hardly a vote of confidence from a skeptical deputy mayor considering a subway line the city really needs to have completed.

  • Boon Doggle

    Ben – I think his point there was that you have to make the tough choices to get the money lined up to see such projects that should be built get built. Not that it shouldn’t be built.

  • JK

    Anybody have transpo infrastructure spending/person numbers for NYC, LA, Chicago, Denver, Phoenix etc? Are other USA metros really spending more than NYC? Our infrastructure is much denser, older and more expensive. However, NYC/ metro NYC has an immense tax base and bondable funding streams compared to anywhere else. One thing that is hurting NYC badly is the insane per mile cost of new subways. $2b/mile is about what a whole new light rail line costs out west, and dwarfs the cost of high end BRT. Speaking of which, I’d like to see NYC cost out a really nice E/W BRT line from Nassau through Qns into Manhattan. Surely it couldnt be more than $250mil/mile.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    I have to disagree, JK. I’ve been convinced that BRT as a concept is not worth fighting for by the arguments on this page:

    http://www.lightrailnow.org/facts/fa_brt.htm

    I’m happy to see “Quality Bus” improvements like bus bulbs, signal priority, branding, etc., but I think anything that’s specifically presented as a “BRT project” is too easy to water down until there’s nothing left but a name and a bunch of expensive studies.

    I’d like to see an estimated price for a really nice light-rail line in the same corridor, also.

  • crzwdjk

    $2 billion buys you a whole new subway line in Madrid. Why not in Manhattan? Madrid manages to build about 30 miles of subway every four years. New York hasn’t built that much, total, since the 1940s. As for light rail, I think the streetcar option is the best for New York, and it can be done relatively cheaply and quickly. Portland built theirs for something like $20 million per mile.

  • Lawrence

    I don’t think you can compare costs in two different places unless you know the specific realities of each. Many things effect the cost of construction, and $2 billion may buy a whole lot more in one place than another.

    As an architect, I can tell you that construction – of any type – is tremendously expensive in NYC. Labor rates are high (not even including union labor, which government contracts often require), access and material transportation are difficult and therefor expensive, strict building standards, high insurence costs, etc, etc.

    Think of the difficulties of building a subway that may not exist in Madrid. NYC is a very dense city:

    – There are layers of utilities beneith the streets that the new tunnels will either have to avoid (impossible) or the utilities will have to be rerouted. The cost of the rerouting and the temporary utilities will have to be added to the project (since you can’t leave the buildings without utilities).

    – There are existing buildings on either side of the street that are in the way of the construction causing difficult site access conditions. Difficult site access adds to the cost of the construction, as does limited staging and material strorage areas. Rule of thumb: more difficult = more expensive

    – The cost of shoring up existing building foundations will have to be added. I bet there are hundreds of buildings along the route that will be affected

    – Site security so materials and tools don’t ‘walk’

    – The added fees to consultants for coordinating the demands and requirements of multiple agencies and community groups. I have worked on several projects (four senior centers, one SRO housing/senior center) for the City, and I can tell you the time requirement here can be tremendous.

  • crzwdjk

    And of course since building is so much trouble, might as well get as much out of it as possible, by making it as expensive as possible. Look at the plans for LIRR to Grand Central and the new Hudson tunnel. Both involve building new deep cavern stations rather than using existing track space, which adds billions to the cost, for absolutely no benefit. Look at the ridiculously overdesigned Second Avenue Subway, with its deep tunnels and huge stations and 11 story ventilation buildings. The original subway system was built in cut and cover tunnels, which did require shoring up buildings, and yet it was built much more quickly and cheaply, with much more primitive tools than we have today. Isn’t technology supposed to make things cheaper and easier to build? And how is it that unions are more of a problem here in America than they are in the supposedly socialist Europe?

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Lawrence, all the things you list as objections are just as true (if not more so) in Madrid, Paris and the other European cities that are expanding their transit systems. They’re not only extending their metro lines, but they’re also building light rail and reviving commuter lines, as New Jersey Transit is doing.

    Meanswhile contrast the New York State agencies’ reactions to complaints about eminent domain in the Atlantic Yards project vs. the LIRR third track.

    And Crzwdjk, I totally agree about all these deep cavern projects, especially the LIRR-Grand Central link.

  • Ace

    I also agree with the wasted cost of deep cavern stations. One of the joys of the NYC subway, as compared to D.C. for example, is the ease and speed of entering and exiting.

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