Transportation experts: $29 billion infusion will help NY transit but won't cure all woes

NEW YORK, N.Y. – A $29 billion infusion into the city’s transportation network, brokered during a political fight that threatened commuters, likely will still leave the nation’s largest regional transportation network lagging behind modern systems across the globe but will provide repairs and upgrades needed to keep pace with booming ridership, transit experts said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s five-year modernization plan now has funding for scores of improvements, including more than 1,000 new subway cars, more real-time countdown clocks, better signals that lead to faster service and more than 80 miles of track repair, including some to rails damaged by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

But many transportation experts argue the capital spending program is mostly a maintenance plan rather than a blueprint for a robust transportation system for a 21st-century global city.

“We’re not investing enough in our region’s infrastructure,” said Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, an advocacy group dedicated to reducing car dependency in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. “In the tristate region we have $400 billion in infrastructure needs.”

She noted the lion’s share of the money will be spent on improvements to the infrastructure needed to keep the sprawling system working each day. She said the money isn’t a cure-all but “stops the hemorrhaging of a system that without this investment would see continued deterioration.”

The city’s growth and success has always been linked to transportation infrastructure, from its position beside New York harbour to the Erie Canal to the subway system, according to Lucius Riccio, a former city transportation commissioner and past MTA board member who’s now a senior lecturer at Columbia University and New York University. He said the region should be building a new subway line each decade and adding new passenger and freight rail tunnels under the Hudson River.

“Other cities — Shanghai, London — these cities are growing, and we’ll be limited,” he said in an interview before the deal was completed. “If you think of what people did 100 years ago in building the subways and great bridges, with limited construction and power capabilities, why can’t we build this? What is holding us back except for political will?”

The biggest reason is money. The federal government has cut back on infrastructure investment and has yet to commit to paying for a portion of an ambitious $20 billion plan floated by Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to build two Hudson River tunnels, new bridges and an expanded New York Penn Station.

Local leaders have had to find ways to bankroll the projects, and that led to a months-long feud between Cuomo and Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio over the MTA capital plan.

Cuomo initially asked the city to contribute $3.2 billion to what was at first a $32 billion plan. De Blasio balked, citing concerns the state would again raid the MTA fund for other uses.

After weeks of public sniping in what became the latest front in the ongoing battle between Albany and City Hall, de Blasio agreed to pay $2.5 billion while the state will contribute $8.3 billion. The rest is made up of pre-existing dedicated revenue streams.

Both men touted the plan Monday.

“It’ll be a more pleasant experience for the rider. But it’ll also be better for the economy,” Cuomo said. “And you put that together with the (proposed new LaGuardia) airport, new bridges, new roads, New York is going to have a whole different feel.”

Beyond reworking the guts of the aging system, the money will go toward a few big projects, including a new subway line on Second Avenue and connecting the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal. Gene Russianoff, an attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, sounded an optimistic note, pointing out investments in the past several decades have paid off by maintaining the largest transit system in North America, a necessity for the 9 million daily riders.

“There’s no such thing as an inexpensive subway,” he said. “It’s a good system. It could be a lot better. It’s got its problems. We’ve got several billion dollars to make it better.”