The Federal Transit Man: Douse Your Own Fire, MTA

Written by Larry Penner, FTA Region 2 (Ret.)
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New York MTA Chairman and CEO Patrick Foye. Andrew Burton/Getty Images

There are always two sides to every story. I don’t have the financial resources to hire an army of public relations people to ghost write columns like New York MTA Chairman Pat Foye has and send them to every media outlet in town. Nevertheless, here’s my take on an alarmist op-ed that recently appeared in the New York Times, re-printed by Railway Age.

“The Subways Are Facing a Five Alarm Fire” (Foye and TWU International President John Samuelsen, Sept. 1) requires farebox revenue, City Hall, Albany and Washington to all pitch in to put out the fire. Earlier in the year, after receipt of $3.9 billion in CARES Act COVID-19 funding, the MTA announced it needed another $3.9 billion. Now, the figure has swollen to $12 billion. What will it be tomorrow? Several weeks ago, it was a four-alarm fire. Now it is a five-alarm fire. What will it be tomorrow? Foye reminds me of The Boy Who Cried Wolf.

There is still $12 billion or more worth of Federal Transit Administration funding projects in active open grants. Why has the MTA not conducted a forensic audit to determine unspent available balances? The FTA issued guidance on March 13 that gave all transit agencies permission for reallocation of funding from capital projects in existing grants to use toward COVID-19 expenses. The same applies to 2020 and future 2021 formula funding under various FTA grant programs. 

The FTA made available $1.4 billion worth of annual formula funding in 2020. What is the status of this request? Has the MTA entered grants into the FTA grants Transit Award Management System (TRAMS)? Have these funds been obligated in approved grants? Are any of these funds being used toward paying for COVID-19 expenses?

On Oct. 1, an additional $1.5 billion in 2021 formula funds becomes available. Within its $51 billion 2020-2024 Capital Plan, the MTA has allocated local funds of $4 billion toward the $6.9 billion Second Avenue Subway Phase 2, with no indication of significant progress in obtaining $3 billion from Washington under a Full Funding Grant Agreement in 2020; $1.5 billion for Metro-North Bronx Penn Station Access, and several hundred million between the 1% requirement for Arts in Transit as part of many capital projects and consultant contracts (how much of this work could be performed by in-house forces?). Much of this could be reallocated toward paying for COVID-19 expenses.

When will the MTA make the difficult decisions to postpone or cancel these projects? How many more monthly MTA board meetings will come and go with no action? Funding safety and state of good repair for vent plants, pumps, signals and tracks are clearly a higher priority than system expansion projects.

Riders and Washington are already fighting the financial fire. City Hall and Albany must do likewise. MTA Chairman Foye recently blamed Washington for a loss of $1 billion. This was based on the Federal Highway Administration not working fast enough with the MTA in completion of the NEPA process. This is necessary to implement Congestion Pricing. Even if FHWA made a NEPA finding tomorrow, Congestion Pricing could never be implemented on Jan. 1, 2021. Why? Because Governor Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio never announced their respective appointments to the MTA Traffic Mobility Review Board.

It has been almost one year with no action on their part to date. Why have they not made these critical appointments? Details of who will pay what can never be resolved and made public until this board is established, proceeds and completes its assigned mandated tasks.

This process is also very politically sensitive. It could take from six months to a year before Congestion Pricing could be agreed upon. I will not hold my breath waiting for MTA Chairman Foye’s future New York Times op-ed holding Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo accountable for their respective contributions in delaying implementation of Congestion Pricing.

The MTA must make the difficult financial decisions like millions of New Yorkers out of work or underemployed to decide what to purchase today and what can wait until next year or later.

Larry Penner, “The Federal Transit Man,” is a transportation historian, writer and advocate who previously worked 31 years for the United States Department of Transportation Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Railroad, MTA Bus, New Jersey Transit and 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.

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