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MTA: $32B would fund new trains, East Side Access, LIRR double track

Contractors work on the East Side Access Project

Contractors work on the East Side Access Project on Jan 29, 2013, below midtown Manhattan. A new MTA budget in September 2014 includes the East Side access to Grand Central Terminal. Credit: Charles Eckert

The MTA plans to spend $32 billion over the next five years on infrastructure projects including East Side Access, a second track between Farmingdale and Ronkonkoma, and state-of-the-art crash prevention technology on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North, officials said.

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 2015-2019 capital plan, released Tuesday, also includes plans to build an LIRR station in Queens and completely replace the railroad's oldest trains.

"The MTA Capital Program is our single-most important effort to ensure we can keep the New York metropolitan region moving," MTA chairman Thomas Prendergast said.

The authority will formally propose the plan to the 22-member MTA Board Wednesday. If approved, the proposal would then go before the Capital Review Board, which includes state lawmakers and members appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The board would have 90 days to approve the plan.

Once approved, the MTA has to come up with the money for its capital plan, typically funded through a combination of MTA revenue, including from fares, bond issuances, and state and federal aid. The MTA says it has already identified $16.9 billion and plans to "work with its funding partners and other stakeholders" to close the remaining $15.2 billion gap.

One of the ways the MTA plans to raise money for the plan is by issuing new 30-year bonds that would be backed by the $1.2 billion in annual revenue it receives from its payroll mobility tax -- a move that would save the agency hundreds of millions in interests costs. Republican state lawmakers opposed to the tax, which has withstood several legal challenges, said Tuesday they believe the move would essentially lock in the controversial tax for at least three decades.

The MTA's last capital plan, covering 2010-2014, was originally proposed at $24 billion, but ballooned to nearly $35 billion because of superstorm Sandy repair costs. Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Rudin Center for Transportation, said Sandy's impact could help the MTA make its case for further capital investment.

"The risk of not spending, of not maintaining the physical transportation system is much too great," Moss said.

The proposal includes $2.8 billion to complete East Side Access, which promises to link the LIRR to Grand Central Terminal by 2022; $250 million to complete the LIRR Double Track project in Suffolk; $465 million to buy new M9 electric LIRR cars to replace the 30-year-old M3 fleet; $196 million to finish installation of positive train control crash-prevention systems on the LIRR and Metro-North, the latter on which four people died in a Bronx derailment last year after an engineer fell asleep; and $40 million to build an LIRR station in Elmhurst.

LIRR Commuter Council chairman Mark Epstein said while the MTA is proposing to spend "a significant sum" on the railroad, it is not moving ahead with a long-debated plan to add a third track to the Main Line, "which is necessary to take full advantage of East Side Access."

Epstein also said the council remains "deeply concerned" about the funding shortfall.

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