New York Transportation Officials: We’re Broke

In the absence of funds, transportation agencies are looking for cost-effective ways to move people. The Port Authority suggested it would be open to increasing Holland Tunnel capacity with a bus lane, for example. Photo: ## via Flickr##.

The state’s top transportation officials delivered some tough news to the construction industry Friday: Public agencies are so cash-strapped they don’t even have enough money to maintain existing infrastructure.

With budgets battered by rising maintenance costs and recession-ravaged revenues, an industry-sponsored conference offered little prospect of further expansions to the state’s transportation system beyond the projects currently underway. Some combination of new revenue streams, cost-saving measures, and public-private partnerships will be necessary simply to keep New York moving, most suggested. Meanwhile, the cozy relationship between public officials and construction industry heavyweights was on full display, at times contradicting the general message of austerity.

Speaker after speaker laid out the costs involved just to maintain the state’s aging infrastructure. Joel Ettinger, the head of the New York City region’s metropolitan planning organization, said that over the next twenty-five years, “an amazing 98 percent of the money is going to go just to state of good repair and operations.” That’s a full $950 billion through 2035, he said.

Port Authority tunnels, bridges, and terminals director Victoria Cross Kelly presented her agency’s top capital project priorities, including billion dollar replacements of the Goethals Bridge, the George Washington Bridge suspender cables, and the New Jersey approach to the Lincoln Tunnel, as well as a number of smaller projects. “Each and every one of these has somewhere in their title ‘rehab’ or ‘replace,'” she said. “There’s no new added functionality.”

New York City Transit’s chief engineer, Fredrick Smith, pointed to the system’s dire need for new track signals. Currently, a quarter of the subway’s signals are over 70 years old. “How reliable do you think that is?” he asked. Unfortunately, the MTA capital plan for 2010-2014 is only funded through next year and the bulk of the signal work is theoretically scheduled for 2012.

Even for the basic tasks of keeping bridges up, roads paved, and transit running, current funding is inadequate. “Increased, stable resources need to be provided,” said acting NYS DOT director Stanley Gee. Gee singled out the project to rebuild the deteriorating Tappan Zee Bridge and add transit access across it as particularly problematic. “There’s no way that existing tolls can build that bridge,” he said.

As for where that money might come from, Gee was open to any possibility. “Pricing obviously is one,” he said. He also suggested a mileage tax to replace declining gas tax revenue. Gee isn’t counting on help from one potential savior, however: the federal government. “We don’t expect a long-term extension of federal funding any time soon.” Gee ultimately urged the audience, filled with politically powerful firms, to convince elected officials to fund transportation.

From a sustainability perspective, the upside of the funding scarcity is that many transportation agencies are looking to do more with less — and that can mean prioritizing transit. “We need to focus on making the best use of what lanes and tracks we have,” said Port Authority Director of Regional Development Andy Lynn. Calling the Lincoln Tunnel’s exclusive bus lane a great success story, Lynn said “We need more of that.” During the Holland Tunnel’s evening rush, he noted, buses make up less than three percent of the vehicles, but carry 48 percent of the people. There is currently no exclusive bus lane in the Holland Tunnel.

But cost saving measures won’t always favor transit riders. “If we can save money on our operating budget, that’s more money we can use for capital,” said Hilary Ring, director of government affairs at the MTA. The MTA’s goal is to reduce its operating budget by $750 million per year, he said, and the agency is well on its way to achieving it. Those savings don’t just come from administrative efficiencies but also unpopular layoffs. “It’s a very contentious situation that we need support for.”

Ring’s comment was a reminder of the constant conflict between operating budgets and capital investments, leading to tradeoffs between fares and service on the one hand and repairs and expansion on the other. The more debt the MTA takes on to pay for its capital program, the more its interest payments will rise and the greater the upward pressure on the fare will be. In one revealing moment that could only have played well before an audience of construction industry insiders, Ring dismissed popular anger over fare hikes, saying that “most people don’t really have a problem with the amount that they pay.”

The Tappan Zee Bridge is the only way across the Hudson between _ and _ and is deteriorating rapidly. No one knows how a new bridge will be paid for. Photo: via Flickr.
The Tappan Zee Bridge is deteriorating rapidly and no one has decided how a new bridge will be paid for. Photo: ## a via Flickr##.

One potential way to relieve the pressure of tight budgets to give more control of the transportation system to business, through public-private partnerships. Such partnerships could speed up project times, cut the risk of cost overruns and add “incentives for innovation,” argued Samara Barend, an exec with engineering giant AECOM.

The idea already has a foothold in the New York region. The new Goethals Bridge will be built under a “design, build, finance, maintain” partnership, which importantly allows the Port Authority to retain control over toll rates, said the PA’s Cross Kelly. She also noted a public-private partnership in place to rebuild the George Washington Bridge bus terminal.

But Cross Kelly expressed skepticism about the way many public-private partnerships across the country have been structured. She suggested that the public sector should usually maintain control over tolls and explore shorter leases than the 49 or 99 year contracts signed in states like Illinois and Indiana.

Similarly, Lieutenant Governor Richard Ravitch sounded cool on private-sector control of transportation in his keynote address. “Every bus, every subway, every railroad line,” he said, “they were all privately owned and they all went broke.” Though he admitted that was partly because the government wouldn’t let the private operators raise fares, he implied that pricing essential public resources like transportation ought to remain a public prerogative. He also dismissed arguments about government inefficiency. “The Wall Street firms that push this and lobby for all of this very vigorously don’t innately have any better capacity to design or operate these systems,” said Ravitch.

One cost-saving device that didn’t get mentioned, of course, was getting tough with the contractors sponsoring the conference. Instead, the too-close-for-comfort relationship between public agencies and the industry was on full display. Describing the head of the General Contractors Association, NYS DOT Director of Civil Rights Warren Whitlock said that “her leadership on behalf of her industry is advancing our agenda,” as if there was no daylight between them.

The only elected politician to speak, State Senate President Malcolm Smith, did promise state support for transportation. But his remarks focused exclusively on high speed rail, not the urban transit systems and existing infrastructure that face catastrophic disinvestment, and which New Yorkers already count on to get around.

Touting his support for HSR, Smith promised that “there will be enough money spent that many of you who might be doing quite well will be doing a lot better” and that “there will be future millionaires and billionaires in this room.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    “One cost-saving device that didn’t get mentioned, of course, was getting tough with the contractors sponsoring the conference. Instead, the too-close-for-comfort relationship between public agencies and the industry was on full display. Describing the head of the General Contractors Association, NYS DOT Director of Civil Rights Warren Whitlock said that “her leadership on behalf of her industry is advancing our agenda,” as if there was no daylight between them.”

    Right. And, of course, state legislators have a too close for comfort relationship with the construction unions. The distribution of blame for the escalating cost of capital projects is not easy for outsiders to figure out, but it shouldn’t be put up with anymore.

    People have a right to be suspicious of Christie’s motives on ARC. But as an advocate of full mainetnance of the system and most of the expansions on the table, I would still want contracts frozen — for a lot longer than three months — if it were up to me. A couple of years without new revenues might get the consultants, construction industry and unions together and try to figure out how to bring the cost of construction down.

    They are predicting more cost over-runs on the SAS. I’d be demanding the completion up to 125th Street for the amount already budgeted.

  • When will we get a new State DOT commissioner? It’s been more than a year. (And thanks, Streetsblog, for making it possible for me to become aware of this.)

  • How can they be broke? Judging by the fact that they let private autos romp around on the expensive-to-maintain East River bridges without paying a dime, you’d think our regional transportation agencies were rolling in money!

  • Great post. This really gets into the heart of why big-ticket infrastructure isn’t getting built.

    Sam Schwartz’s congestion pricing plan all the way! But it may still need to reframed to make it more palatable for the transitphobes in Albany who are still chasing the Eisenhower-era version of the American Dream (two-car garages, megamalls and ample parking). Put more lip service into mouth-watering sweeteners of congestion pricing, like freshly laid asphalt, shiny new exit ramp signs, bridges that are not on the verge of collapsing. If you like Ike, you’ll like CP.

  • JK

    Hilary Ring’s statement about squeezing the operating budget to pay for MTA capital projects is truly absurd. It comes when poor people who ride the MTA are paying a larger and larger share of their income to cover the growing debt from MTA capital expenditures — that is if their bus or subway service hasn’t already been cut. Comments like Mr. Ring’s give cover to the elected scoundrels who are the one’s stealing transit money and defunding the agency.

  • ChrisC

    >>The Port Authority suggested it would be open to increasing Holland Tunnel capacity with a bus lane, for example. <<

    My comment is about not the Holland Tunnel, but the Lincoln Tunnel. I've said it before, but I feel the need to repeat it.

    One Manhattan-bound bus lane in the morning and zero NJ-bound lanes in the afternoon is NOT ENOUGH.

    They need one 24/7 Manhattan-bound lane, one 24/7 NJ-bound lane, and one reversible lane (Manhattan-bound AM rush, NJ-bound PM rush, and I guess general use the rest of the time).

    This would be so much to increase speed and reliability of buses crossing the Hudson that loads of people would start taking buses instead of driving private cars. There would be fewer car lanes, but much less car traffic, so they wouldn't need so as many lanes.

  • The acknowledgment by NYS DOT officials that there is no money to maintain our critically important transportation infrastructure should come as no surprise to those who follow how poorly our roads and bridges have been maintained for decades. Outside of NYC — where billions have been spent to ensure structural adequacy of our roads and bridges by the Bloomberg adminsistration — one in four bridges in our state are either structurally deficient or functionally obsolete. This means that they can no longer carry traffic as originally designed and should be replaced before a tragedy occurs.

    More significantly, over 100 bridges in our state are similar to the I-35W that collapsed in Minneapolis in 2007. There, sixteen years of deferred maintenance coupled with a design known as “fracture critical” i.e. built without redundancy in the event even one structural member fails — results in collapse of the entire structure.

    The NYS DOT and all of our politicians know full well that the Tappan Zee Bridge is a hazard to the traveling public every day. We are courting disaster there and throughout the state by crying poverty. The funding to maintain our critical infrastructure will need to be parsed together from a combination of federal funds, increases in the gasoline taxes which have been historically too low, and the development of a national infrastructure bank promoted by Felix Rohatyn and the Obama Administration as well as through the prudent use of public private partnerships.

    There can be no allowance for the needed remediation of our state’s infrastructure and discussing the subject without setting in motion a plan to correct the situation can no longer be tolerated.

    *The writer is the author of “Too Big to Fall: America’s Failing Infrastructure and the Way Forward” (Univ. of New England Press) to be available in bookstores and on the web in late October.

  • Germano

    That is definately it!