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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

No harm from transit plan delay -- yet

MTA workers replace cable on the A line

MTA workers replace cable on the A line subway tracks by the Hamilton Beach station in Queens on Wednesday, May 27, 2015. Credit: Uli Seit

Sure enough, lawmakers in Albany are expected to adjourn next week without enacting a Metropolitan Transportation Authority capital program for the five-year period that already began Jan. 1.

MTA officials and mass-transit advocates warned that the agency's budget for critical projects faces a $14 billion shortfall in serious need of addressing.

Gene Russianoff, head of the Straphangers Campaign, described as "mind-boggling" what he termed Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's "disaffection from the issue."

But even as this legislative session wanes, it would be more than hyperbolic to say Cuomo and legislative leaders are starving the system to the point of neglect.

Put another way, those in charge know they have more time.

Take a moment to hear from New York City's Independent Budget Office, one of your more sober and earnest -- if small and obscure -- government operations.

The office reports this week that MTA repair and expansion work is not about to "come to a screeching halt -- at least not in the short term."

Even without a 2015-19 capital plan in place, the MTA still has projects from an earlier plan in the pipeline.

The previous plan, for 2010 through 2014, totaled $32 billion. By the end of last year, the MTA had signed contracts to spend only $18 billion of that total.

This leaves a whopping 44 percent of the funding from the last five-year plan still uncommitted, according to the report, prepared by IBO staffer Alan Treffeisen.

And, of the 56 percent that was committed, less than half actually got spent by the end of last year, the report says.

In fact, the MTA last year was still spending on items from three previous five-year plans.

"There was even a small amount spent that dated back to the 1992-1999 plan," the report states.

It is a fact of life everywhere that big capital projects take time and suffer delays.

The MTA capital plan becomes a "framework" for carrying out projects "rather than a precise timetable for investments," Treffeisen writes. Also, some projects had to be added due to the impact of superstorm Sandy in 2012.

In October, Cuomo questioned the agency's new $32 billion proposal, suggesting it was "a bloated, initial first request."

The typical delay for enacting an MTA plan is usually three to six months.

Tough funding decisions cannot slide indefinitely without consequence. As always, there are questions as to where money will come from. Making revenue from the state, localities, fares and tolls and other sources match operating costs and construction goals is the perennial problem for mass transit in New York.

While putting the Albany delay in perspective, the IBO, which is independent of the mayor and the City Council, also warns that stalling on a capital plan "for much longer than six months" could "compromise the MTA's ability to maintain its capital investments at a steady pace."

That means the task shouldn't be put off forever.

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