The MTA should publish a new assessment of its long-term capital needs that pays particular attention to the growing threat climate change poses to transit, and its most recent 20-year needs assessment shows many capital needs are overdue for attention, according to Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli’s latest report.
“The MTA is getting a large infusion of federal infrastructure funds, but its long-term finances are still in trouble as it wrestles with an overdue list of repairs and upgrades and growing debt,” DiNapoli said. “It needs to reassess and focus its priorities to get money where it is most needed to restore the system and bring riders back. Protecting against the growing threat of climate change must also be among its top priorities because climate change threatens all aspects of our regional transit system.”
To prepare for the release of its five-year capital programs, the MTA creates a 20-year capital needs assessment detailing long-term infrastructure priorities for maintaining and improving its system. The last assessment, covering 2015-2034, was published in 2013 and is overdue for an update. The MTA is now required by state law to produce a needs assessment every five years starting in 2023.
The MTA’s 2013 assessment did not include any recovery and resiliency work beyond what was already planned to recover from Superstorm Sandy and mitigate against similar storms. Climate change impacts are intensifying and the increased risk of flooding, storm surges and other damage to transit need to be incorporated into the plan as soon as possible before the October 2023 deadline to inform public debate and ensure targeted investment.
Although the 2013 assessment is out of date, it serves as a measuring stick for the MTA’s capital investments and its progress in maintaining the safety and reliability of its assets. DiNapoli’s report notes that in some areas — such as important upgrades to stations, tracks and switches — the MTA either has gone beyond its 2013 assessed needs or is near meeting its targets, but in many others, the MTA has barely addressed important goals:
- Subway flooding is increasingly disruptive and destructive, yet since 2015 the MTA has only spent $56 million on pump rooms and other line equipment with another $189 million committed, out of the $1.7 billion called for in the needs assessment for 2015 through 2024.
- The MTA said it needed to invest $4.9 billion in new subway cars from 2015 through 2024, but it only spent $700,000 on subway car projects since 2015. It did order 460 subway cars during its 2015-2019 capital program — to replace those over 40 years old and prone to break downs — but the new cars are not expected until 2025.
- The MTA has spent just half of the $3.4 billion it said it needed to replace buses and keep fleets in good working order.
- Upgrading antiquated subway signals was the top priority for long-term capital needs in the last assessment. The signals overhaul — budgeted at $8.7 billion through 2024 — was needed to resolve signal malfunctions that regularly disrupted service and to address overcrowding by allowing trains to run closer together. MTA has completed only $900 million in signals work through Sept. 2021. A recent presentation by the MTA showed that communication-based train control projects are continuing to suffer delays and budget overruns. Signals, along with critical track and switches, are areas vulnerable to flood damage from extreme weather or storm surges brought on by climate change.
- Metro-North train cars have needed replacement going back to 2013, but just $7 million has been spent to date on completed projects to bring in new cars. Another $741 million was committed but that’s still only 41% of what it assessed was needed through 2024. All projected work needed through 2024 on Metro-North’s tracks and structures, however, was completed.
- The MTA put nearly $1.3 billion toward LIRR track projects since 2015, but that’s just 66% of the amount it said was needed by 2024.
- Replacing aging LIRR train cars that have been in use since the mid-1980s was a need identified in 2013, but remains behind schedule, although some new cars are starting to be delivered now.
DiNapoli recommended improvements to the MTA’s online capital program dashboard, which tracks spending. The report suggests tracking spending on projects as they progress and can demonstrate benefits to the system, not just when they’re completed; tracking how completed projects change the MTA’s state of good repair measurements for various system assets; and showing how spending on capital projects affects riders’ experience such as safety and reliability of service.
DiNapoli also urged the MTA to improve reporting on capital spending to better align its public data with the Governor’s recent transparency initiative. The transparency plan that the MTA submitted to the Governor did not address capital spending as it should. Improved reporting will help riders, and all stakeholders in the transit system, better understand how the MTA is progressing in its efforts to make transit safer and more resilient.
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