New subway cars, signal installation and Sandy resiliency projects are all years behind schedule, according to the latest findings from State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli’s office.
While the agency has begun spending on its largest capital plan in MTA history—$51.5 billion to modernize the system—a report released Thursday from the comptroller finds many key projects from the last capital plan are still not complete, and the agency’s still doesn’t appear to be ready to address the changes that are expected to come with climate change.
“The MTA is getting a large infusion of federal infrastructure funds, but its long-term finances are still in trouble as it wrestles with an overdue list of repairs and upgrades and growing debt,” DiNapoli wrote in a statement. “It needs to reassess and focus its priorities to get money where it is most needed to restore the system and bring riders back. Protecting against the growing threat of climate change must also be among its top priorities because climate change threatens all aspects of our regional transit system.”
Subway cars, for example, the comptroller notes, should be replaced every 40 years. Currently, about 40% of the MTA’s 6,500 subway cars are over 30 years of age. The other 53% are between 10-19 years old and the next delivery of new cars won’t arrive until 2025 due to COVID-related delays.
Over the summer, the MTA said the first arrivals of its newest subway car would be on the tracks by next fall.
Still, the MTA has found ways to make the old trains work. For example, across all train cars, the breakdown rate of subway cars has improved from October 2016 to this year. The MTA has squeezed an extra 36,000 miles out of train cars before they need to be taken in for repairs, according to its own figures.
In 2013, the last time the MTA did a needs assessment of its trains and equipment, it found that $8.7 billion in signal upgrades were needed to be made by 2024. The agency will have to ramp up to meet that goal. It’s still completing projects from the previous capital plan, the 2015-2019 plan, and has only spent $907 million on signals, presumably on the 7 line, with work still underway on the F and the A, C, and E lines now.
The MTA now hopes to spend $5.9 billion on electronic signals by 2024.
Repairs following Sandy, the 2012 storm that caused catastrophic damage to the system, are still underway nearly a decade later. The comptroller found less than half of the $7.7 billion worth of project are complete, while about a third of the repair work is under construction now.
This comes as the MTA has begun grappling with torrential downpours that are more frequent with climate change. Rain storms this year temporarily paralyzed the system: Even though the MTA was able to get subway trains running quickly after the rains stopped, it still took Metro-North several days after Ida to get back to regular service.
"Because the MTA is likely to amend its capital plans to address climate change and the impacts from Hurricane Ida, it is important for the public and stakeholders to have full, updated information before decisions are made," Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst at Reinvent Albany, wrote in a statement.
Like the comptroller, Fauss hopes the MTA will update its capital projects dashboard to show not just when projects are in the planning, designing, under construction, and completed phases, but also the progress of projects that are underway. “An improved dashboard can help the public better understand how the MTA is addressing climate change in their neighborhoods and in the transit system as a whole," Fauss wrote.
The riders’ advocate at the MTA board, Lisa Daglian with the Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, argues resilience projects should be prioritized now.
“While it’s promising that MTA leadership has acknowledged the importance of protecting the transit system in the face of climate change and extreme weather, riders urgently need targeted funding for resiliency capital improvements – not just in the next capital program, but also in the short-term before the next Ida or Sandy strikes,” Daglian wrote in a statement. “A resiliency assessment should be undertaken now – in the context of the regional ecosystem and environment – to determine the best and most urgent use of scarce resources across interconnecting agencies: transportation; DEP; DEC; Parks, etc.”
The comptroller's report shows that for the subways, about half of the Sandy repair projects are complete, while only 20% of the Long Island Railroad’s projects are done, and just 4% of Metro-North’s projects are complete or $20 million of its own $463 million program.
"This report, on an eight-year-old assessment of needs, focuses on a capital project delivery system that the MTA has replaced," MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan said in a statement. "With the help of the State Legislature, the MTA has replaced its prior system of multiple construction agencies and disjointed planning and project development departments with a single new entity that has changed the way we develop and deliver projects – MTA Construction & Development – to effectively coordinate and manage all construction work for subways, buses, commuter railroads, bridges and tunnels.”