By Scott Rechler & Tom Wright, Daily News
Anyone who has tried to travel across New York City this past year knows that something is very wrong. The number of subway delays is up over 200% in the past five years. Midtown Manhattan has the slowest average traffic speeds in history.
Want to take a bus? It’s faster to walk. Indeed, over 100 million riders have opted out of city bus service over the past eight years.
After decades of record growth in ridership and significant underinvestment, our aging transportation infrastructure is failing. And now millions of New Yorkers are paying the price, in time, aggravation, lost productivity and for some even worse.
Fortunately, the story is not entirely without hope. There are, after all, achievable and comprehensive options available to inject more funding into our transportation system, including congestion pricing and other recommendations made by the Fix NYC panel tapped by Gov. Cuomo.
That said, even if we find additional revenues, there is another, far more insidious problem that imperils our ability to modernize and expand our infrastructure: namely, the inability of our government agencies to spend the money they receive either efficiently or effectively.
Take the MTA. For ages, nearly every major project that it has undertaken has taken far too long, cost way too much or a combination of both. Given this, it is hard to argue with those who say that creating new sources of funding for the MTA is tantamount to throwing good money after bad.
There is no shortage of examples of MTA projects that have been delivered well over budget and far beyond their original completion dates.
East Side Access, which will someday connect the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Terminal, was supposed to open by 2009 at a budget of $4.3 billion. It has now ballooned to a price tag of over $10 billion and won’t be completed for at least another four years.
It has taken over 10 years for the MTA to install a modern signal system for the L train. It is likely to take nearly a decade for the MTA to do the same for the 7 train — assuming the schedule holds. With over 20 subway lines across the city, this means that, at the current pace, New York City’s subways will not have modern signals throughout the network until mid-century…at the earliest!
It would be nice if we could point to a single factor or even a single person who is responsible for this mess. However, the problem that we have today results from the accumulation of bad and costly decisions made by legions of individuals over many, many years.
And we all pay the price.
For example, we have a procurement process that is so broken that it limits competition. Contractors who participate are forced to assume the risk of delays over which they have little control. Those contractors willing to take this risk price their bids accordingly. Many do not even bother to submit bids.
The environmental review process, which was instituted over 50 years ago to inform and protect the public, has become so convoluted that it can be understood by only a handful of experts. It is used as an offensive and defensive weapon in lawsuits, producing environmental impact statements that are as voluminous as they are opaque.
This doesn’t lead to projects that produce the best environmental outcomes, but rather ones that can withstand the gauntlet. And the additional cost and delays produced by these reviews are nowhere factored into decision-making.
Nobody will defend the current system — not the contractors, the suppliers or the unions. The public servants who work at the MTA are fully aware of how misaligned the system is, and they are frustrated that they can’t do their jobs effectively.
It’s not just money that’s wasted on these projects. It’s also opportunity that gets lost. Because it costs us so much to build new subways and tunnels, we do fewer projects. Fewer projects mean fewer construction jobs today and in the future.
Fewer projects also mean communities that are left with rapidly declining transportation options, resulting in worse access to jobs, worse access to schools and worse access to healthcare for millions across our region.
Here is the bottom line: If we are going to have the kind of public transportation system that our region desperately needs to thrive in a highly competitive world, we must solve this problem and solve it fully.
No more half-measures. We need a bold and comprehensive set of reforms if we hope to address what one of our region’s most pressing challenges.
Fortunately, just such a set of reforms was recently put forward by the Regional Plan Association, which we lead.
First, we must bring the MTA into modern times by allowing it to tap a project delivery practice called “design-build.” Under this practice, the same party that ultimately will be responsible for delivering a project is also responsible for designing it, giving it a strong incentive to design that project in a way that can be delivered on time and on budget.
This practice is used across the private sector. It both is more efficient than the MTA’s current project- delivery practice and shifts risk from the public to the private sector — a double windfall for taxpayers.
Second, we must create greater accountability within the MTA. Today, decision-making of all types, including on megaprojects, is diffuse, spread across multiple departments with often competing priorities. Without empowering a single individual to resolve disputes and without holding that individual responsible if projects go off the rails, this structure too often leads to deadlock and delay.
Going forward, we should learn the lesson of the Second Avenue Subway, which, after decades of false starts, actually opened to great fanfare at the end of 2016, because Cuomo stepped in and did what it took to break through the bureaucratic logjam. In the future, if mega-projects are to succeed, an individual or even a whole new entity will have to be empowered to play this same role.
Finally, we must have a serious, respectful and constructive conversation with organized labor. After all, in New York, we have the most talented construction workforce in the world. And yet when it comes to public projects, the efficiency and skill of this workforce is overwhelmed by archaic work rules that create unnecessary inefficiency and waste.
For example, does it really make sense that in New York, unions require that 25 workers operate a tunnel-boring machine, while the same exact machinery is operated by fewer than 10 workers in other comparable cities?
Let’s be clear: Nobody is saying that the hard-working men and women who build and maintain our infrastructure should be paid poorly or that safety should be sacrificed. However, there are rules imposed on the MTA by labor agreements that everyone, including labor leaders, know can be reformed.
If the public is being asked to provide more resources for infrastructure projects (and, therefore, more jobs for members of organized labor), it is incumbent upon organized labor to be a part of the solution in making sure that these resources yield the maximum bang for the buck.
These are just a few of the recommendations included in the RPA’s report. They may seem modest. However, the RPA estimates that, together, these and the other recommendations contained in the report could knock a quarter to a third off the coast of large MTA projects. That represents billions of dollars in what would essentially be “found money” that could be spent to fix and modernize more of our broken transit network and to do so faster.
The time for excuses is long past. Now is the time for action. The solutions are in front of us. What we need is forward-thinking leadership ready to take the steps necessary to bring our transit system into the 21st century. This, of course, requires additional resources for that system. It equally requires us to spend both any new resources and the resources that we already have better and smarter than we have done in the past.
Like it or not, future generations will judge us based on the decisions that we make today.
Rechler is chair of the board of directors and Wright is president at the Regional Plan Association.
Published: February 11, 2018
Filed Under: Community Relations
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