Report: Subways and Buses Don’t Get Their Fair Share in MTA Capital Program

Nicole Gelinas breaks down the MTA's capital plan budget in a new report for the Manhattan Institute.

The $10 billion East Side Access project is one big reason commuter rail gets a disproportionate share of expansion funding in the MTA's current capital plan. Chart: Manhattan Institute
The $10 billion East Side Access project is one big reason commuter rail gets a disproportionate share of expansion funding in the MTA's current capital plan. Chart: Manhattan Institute

The current MTA capital plan disproportionately funds commuter rail at the expense of the subways and buses that account for 93 percent of the agency’s ridership — and those priorities should change, argues Nicole Gelinas in a new report for the Manhattan Institute [PDF].

With ridership falling and subway failures becoming too frequent and severe for politicians to ignore, the pressure to fix the transit system is intensifying. But the MTA has yet to demonstrate that it can select capital projects in the public’s best interest and execute them cost-effectively, Gelinas argues. The MTA isn’t investing in the right projects, and the projects it pursues consistently cost too much and run behind schedule.

Looking at expansion projects, the 2015-2019 MTA capital plan spends $5.1 billion on the Long Island Railroad and Metro-North — nearly three times as much as the amount for subways and buses, even though the two commuter rail lines account for just 7 percent of MTA ridership.

The monster project is the East Side Access tunnel and terminal connecting LIRR to Grand Central, which is expected to cost more than $10 billion when it’s completed sometime next decade.

The capital budget for repairs and improvements to existing infrastructure is much less skewed toward commuter rail, but still doesn’t reflect the importance of subways and buses, with New York City Transit slated to receive 76 percent of the 2015-2019 funding pie.

mta funding for repairs
Chart via Manhattan Institute.

“The MTA prioritizes commuter-rail projects that have value but improve service for fewer people, dollar for dollar, than a more assertive capital plan for subways and buses would,” Gelinas writes.

Getting the subway system to where it needs to won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, Gelinas says the MTA can ease the capacity crunch on the subways by investing in better bus service in cooperation with NYC DOT.

The MTA also needs to rein in its capital construction costs, which far outpace those of peer cities, and grapple with fixed costs like debt service and retiree pensions that are consuming a rising share of the agency’s resources.

“The MTA’s growing debt and retiree burden harms its flexibility to invest in physical infrastructure in the future,” she writes.

  • Alon Levy

    I’ve been trying to get information about pure maintenance costs on the LIRR (as opposed to maintenance + improvement). There’s no one figure that says “maintenance costs,” and the Manhattan Institute’s public payroll data is so disorganized I can’t just get the number of employees and their total salaries. As far as I can tell the track maintenance costs per track-km are a large multiple of the Parisian rates – a much larger multiple than that of the subway – but I can’t find the benchmarking data on this and capital plan figures are noisier than I’d like.

  • reasonableexplanation

    Wait a tic, I thought phase 2 of the SAS was supposed to cost 6 billion?

  • Yeah, and it’s not going to be finished in two years.

  • Larry Littlefield

    To be fair, once East Side Access and the LIRR main line third track are finished, there won’t be any major commuter rail expansion projects for a while, except perhaps adding some stations within the city.

    On the other hand, at that point the suburbs would have gotten everything they were promised when the MTA was formed, with the city getting very little. Just the 63rd Street Tunnel and the Second Avenue stubway.

    The subway got far more expansion projects done in the decade before the MTA when it was run by the City of New York.

  • sbauman

    there won’t be any major commuter rail expansion projects for a while,

    What about additional rolling stock to make use of the additional capacity that ESA was supposed to provide?

  • Daphna

    Would it be better to get rid of the MTA and have LIRR, Metro North amd NYC Transit be separate entities again?

  • JR

    It shouldn’t be an “us vs them” mentality. I don’t think we want to be driving up commuter rail fares more: we don’t need more people driving into the city. And many commuters also have to rely on the subway to get to their places of work. The systems are highly dependent on one another and you also cannot just look at the monetary side: there are other externalities to consider.

    At the same time, the subway needs more funding and better management: the MTA does lipstick projects to stations without improving underlying infrastructure. We might as well be burning the money.

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