The MTA has spent close to $50 million to install allegedly decorative towers outside of the city's bridges and tunnels, and plans to ultimately spend an estimated $100 million on them, an executive in the agency admitted during yesterday's board hearing.
The mysterious MTA Gateway Towers, which bear an eerie similarity to The Grand Galactic Inquisitor, feature the state seal, light beacons, and other unspecified equipment. Several are already positioned outside of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel, the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the Triborough Bridge. Politico reports that the MTA has spent between $42 million and $47 million installing the 30-foot-high towers, and the price to put the towers at all of the city's bridges and tunnels would be $100 million, according to testimony from president of the authority's bridges and tunnels president Cedrick Fulton.
— Reinvent Albany (@ReinventAlbany) September 14, 2017
The towers' funding process was opaque, according to good government group Reinvent Albany. Liz Marcello, a Campaign Director at the group, testified yesterday that the towers "do not exist as a single Project and do not have a single or individual budgets," a charge that the group has been making for a couple of weeks now.
In a complaint to the New York State Authorities Budget Office, Reinvent Albany said that the funding for the towers was spread out over eight contract amendments approved in three separate board meetings, which meant that it was hard for both the MTA board and the public to track where the approved funding was going.
It's not yet clear whether the six additional towers that were planned will even be constructed, and MTA board member/de Blasio Transportation Commissioner Polly Trottenberg didn't sound too keen on approving the additional $58 million that would be necessary to finish the project.
"Personally, I could think of a better use for the $58 million, like fixing the subways," she said at the board meeting according to Politico.
After Reinvent Albany's complaint was filed, MTA spokesperson Shams Tarek said that the towers were actually functional in nature instead of just decorative. The Gateway Towers "host cameras, traffic monitoring and other equipment related to homeland security that would otherwise have been hosted by the former toll booth structures," Tarek told Politico.
Reinvent Albany executive director John Kaehny bluntly called Tarek's claim "nonsense and disingenuous."
"The reality is, the decorative Gateway Towers are mentioned repeatedly in MTA board materials throughout this year, and they're referred to as 'architectural enhancements' repeatedly under New York Crossings," Kaehny told Gothamist, referencing the controversial and expensive bridge light show project that Governor Cuomo dreamt up.
Kaehny pointed out that under the cashless tolling system that state instituted, gantries hanging in the place of tollbooths already have license plate readers and cameras. In addition, the governor did not include the Gateway Towers in his press release introducing the cashless tolling system, despite going over the many new security measures the system would include. "The idea that you need a giant pylon to house facial recognition technology is just total baloney. It's blowing smoke for a huge expense, trying to cover for a huge aesthetic expense," Kaehny said.
Reinvent Albany is not opposed to the towers per se, Kaehny said, but the group was disturbed by the way that they were approved. "It's not a bad thing to have things that look nice, but the MTA board didn't know what they were voting on or what these would cost. It also raises the idea that the MTA is voting on black box expenses, like it's the Pentagon. Come on, what is that?" he asked.