When the MTA announced plans last month to fast track phase two of the Second Avenue Subway—which will extend the long-awaited line up into East Harlem—funding for the project seemed tenuous. While the authority insisted that it had enough money in its coffers to solicit Requests for Proposals (RFPs) for initial uptown contracts, a full $1 billion had been slashed from phase two last fall, leaving the project with only $500 million to work with.
An earlier version of the as-yet-unfunded 2015-19 Capital Plan accounted for digging new tunnels from 96th Street to 125th Street, with work scheduled to begin in 2019; the minimal plan that made Mayor de Blasio grind his teeth last November only covered moving utility lines and establishing access points for work crews and a boring machine.
Now $500 million has been re-allocated to phase two, according to the MTA. At a board meeting on Wednesday, the authority released another revision to its 2015-19 Capital Plan, earmarking $500 million back onto the project to be sourced from the Federal Transit Administration's "New Starts" program.
With the $500 million announced this week, the MTA hopes to get preliminary engineering work for phase two underway, and "maybe get shovels in the ground" relocating utilities necessary for the new stations, according to MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast. Tunnel boring still isn't expected to begin until after 2019.
"We've got to be able to show people that we're serious about this project," Prendergast told reporters on Wednesday. "if you took a look at the long saga of the Second Avenue Subway, there were a number of times where people said, 'meh, can't go forward, let's pull back.'"
"It was a clear indication from the legislature... and our customers that the move to decrease Second Avenue Subway [funding] was unacceptable, so we needed to get to another place," he added.
Announcing his finalized 2016-17 budget in March, Governor Cuomo promised to restore the full $1 billion cut from phase two last fall, albeit in stages—$500 million in 2019, and a minimum of $443 million in the next Capital Plan, covering 2020-24.
William Henderson, director of the watchdog group Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee to the MTA, told us on Thursday that such commitments can be dubious. "It's in the State's financial plan, but only next year's budget is binding, so what does 'commitment' mean here?" he said. "It's basically [like saying] 'my word is good.'"
The State and City agreed to fund the MTA's 2015-19 capital plan in October, and Prendergast, a Cuomo appointee, has insisted for months that he is confident the Governor will come through with his promised $7.3 billion (to be coupled with $2.5 billion from the city). But State legislators and independent analysts have recently expressed concern that Cuomo's drafted budget proposal includes a vague promise of funding, rather than actual dollars. According to the proposal, funding will only become available once the MTA has drained all of its capital resources from years past.
"It's basically governance by press release," said Nick Sifuentes of the Riders Alliance in January. "Cuomo basically wrote a big IOU and the IOU has no date on it."
Prendergast said on Wednesday that he is confident this latest revision to the 2015-19 Capital Plan, to the tune of $29.5 billion, will be approved in May—even though it would be "premature or inappropriate to talk about [a funding plan] because nothing’s been landed on."
Additional reporting by Max Rivlin-Nadler.