Albany oversight hearings are staid and rote affairs. Every now and then, a panel of state legislators call in the technocrats in charge of state agencies to talk about the topics on the minds of those legislators. Unfortunately, those topics often run to the banal when it comes to transit and the MTA. Why is this bus stop in my district on one corner but not the other? Why isn’t the MTA building platform edge doors? When will Staten Island get better transit service?
These are questions with well-known answers, but for the sake of their constituents, our elected officials have to go through this exercise. I find it very frustrating. The Senate and Assembly could hold wall-to-wall hearings on any number of issues plaguing our transit system, but these 90-minute sessions once or a twice a year if we’re lucky is all we get. When MTA CEO and Chair Janno Lieber appeared before a joint committee panel this week, I didn’t expect much to come of it, and by and large, my low expectations were met. The session even featured Diane Savino asking why the MTA plans to build the IBX but there are no plans to build a subway to Staten Island, a topic worth its own post exploring why her constituents don’t want one and no one is currently pushing funding for it. But I digress.
Midway through Lieber appearance, one brief exchange leapt out at me. George Borello, a Republican who represents Jamestown and a district as far away from the MTA’s service area as possible, was the only member of the panel to ask about the MTA’s runaway construction costs. The exchange was brief, and the emphasis is mine:
Borello: It’s been widely reporting that MTA construction costs are up to seven times the global average. Why is that the case? And what steps is the MTA taking to address these out of control costs?
Lieber: The bigger question of how we compare to the rest of the world is part of a longer conversation, but when people throw those numbers around, they frequently don’t even look at what’s the scope. So comparing a mile of New York City subway tunnel to a rubber-wheel facility where they have three cars that carry 100 people is nonsense. So if these comparisons are going to go on, you have to do apples-to-apples work…When you look at those kinds of comparisons, frequently they are informed by nonsensical lack of effort to compare projects based on scope, technology and the conditions of work.
This is a breathtakingly dismissive answer from the MTA head, and it’s wrong. A lot of people, from advocates to journalists to researchers, have conducted rigorous examinations into the MTA’s cost problems. They have indeed compared apples to apples – they’ve compared the Elizabeth Line’s deep-bore subway tunnel underneath London to the Second Ave. Subway’s deep-bore subway tunnel underneath Manhattan – and these efforts are simply not “nonsensical” nor lacking in effort. These four sentences uttered by the MTA head to a panel of legislators during an oversight hearing tells me all I need to know about the lack of sincerity of the MTA’s cost reform efforts.
The MTA’s cost problems are well documented and rigorously documented. Brian Rosenthal of The Times produced a thorough and accessible piece four years ago analyzing how everyone from unions to contractors to public officials is to blame and how the MTA’s usual excuses – environmental review laws, powerful unions, old utilities, fire codes – don’t hold up when compared with the Parises, Madrids and Londons of the world. Alon Levy and Eric Goldwyn at Transit Costs have established a database of global transit projects that break down each by its components. These are the apples-to-apples comparisons that show the MTA paying between three or five times more per kilometer than even the second most expensive projects in the world. These are completely sensical comparisons that show out of control costs.
So why would Lieber dismiss this question out of hand when it’s one he should face every time he is called to Albany? For one, an entire ecosystem exists based on the MTA’s construction costs. Contractors in NYC are a powerful political interest group, and they would lose the most if the MTA could cut even a third of their astronomical construction costs. So the impetus to cut costs would come at a political price for Lieber’s boss. For another, cost reform is almost as impossible a task as it can be in NYC. Lieber alone can’t reform the MTA’s construction costs, and he’s overstepping his bounds to suggest the MTA is flushing money down the toilet. His job to lead to the agency, and it’s the politicians’ job to back work rule reforms and overhauls of review laws that drag down MTA construction projects. He doesn’t have the power or political backing to do any of this himself. It’s both a flaw and the purpose of the MTA as a quasi-independent government authority.
Ultimately, Borello was right to ask, and his fellow Senators should be beating the drum on this topic non-stop. The MTA will not be able to expand its network sufficiently until the costs are under control, and understanding how and why the costs are so out of control and admitting it all publicly is the necessary first step. And all those cost comparisons floating out there? They’re accurate, and they’re not nonsense. Anyone in charge of the MTA should admit that.