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Long IslandTransportation

Billions by default: MTA gets $51.5B for infrastructure work without much debate

The MTA's capital plan set aside funding for

The MTA's capital plan set aside funding for significant projects, including East Side access. Construction work for a new eight-track terminal, which would be part of the LIRR's East Side Access Project, was already taking place in the spring of 2018 at Grand Central Station. Credit: Charles Eckert

Transportation advocates and elected officials are objecting to what they say was a lack of transparency in the state’s ratification earlier this week of a $51.5 billion MTA infrastructure spending plan that includes funding for several Long Island Rail Road expansion projects.

The MTA Capital Program was automatically approved Jan. 1 when no member of the state’s Capital Program Review Board cast a vote against the plan. But the panel, which was missing one of its four members, never met to discuss the proposal.

The anticlimactic passage of the five-year plan highlighted what critics have said was a flawed process since the program was released in September — just three months before the deadline for the state to approve it.

“With no public comment period, anyone interested in speaking on the issue was funneled into the public hearing portion of MTA Board meetings — neither a productive or meaningful way to get input,” Lauren Bailey, of the nonprofit Tri-State Transportation Campaign, said Friday. “Essentially, this was an illusion of transparency without any of the risk.”

The Capital Program earmarks about $5.7 billion in spending for the LIRR, including $910 million for station upgrades, such as new elevators and extended platforms at some stations; $1.02 billion for track work, including for capacity upgrades at Jamaica Station; and $364 million for communications and signal improvements, including to advance a plan to centralize train traffic control operations under one roof.

The plan allocates funding for the LIRR’s Third Track project between Floral Park and Hicksville, and the final dollars for the MTA’s $11.2 billion East Side Access megaproject, which aims to link the LIRR to a new station at Grand Central Terminal via newly bored tunnels by 2022.

Kyle Strober, executive director of the Association for a Better Long Island, a development and advocacy group, said the newly approved Capital Plan “is vital to protecting and preserving Long Island's economic viability.”

“The strength of our connectivity to the city directly impacts our region’s property values. Harm that link and you harm our future,” Strober said.

In a statement Wednesday, MTA chairman Patrick Foye called the plan “both historic and transformational for the largest transportation system in North America.”

“And we're ready to get to work to deliver for New Yorkers and improve the commutes of our nearly 9 million daily customers,” said Foye, who added that the authority was pleased that the plan had been “deemed approved” by the Capital Program Review Board.

Vetos could be cast by any member of the little-known four-person panel, which includes representatives for the governor, Assembly, Senate and New York City Mayor’s Office. In September, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said he would represent himself on the board, and called for the leaders of the Senate and Assembly, and Mayor Bill de Blasio, to do the same. Because de Blasio refused to do so, New York City had no representative on the board, which never met.

“What’s the good of that? Where’s the oversight and responsibility, and most significantly, the all-important sign-off by the mayor?” Lisa Daglian, executive director of the MTA’s Permanent Citizens Advisory Committee, said last month. “We do want to see the plan go through, but we also do believe that the whole process needs to be 'day-lighted' and that there should be more of an opportunity for public review and comment.”

Spokespersons for the Senate and Assembly leadership did not respond to requests for comment. A spokesman for Cuomo declined to comment. Olivia Lapeyrolerie, spokeswoman for de Blasio, said the mayor’s office “provided input on numerous occasions about the capital plan to the MTA” and “will continue to work with stakeholders on next steps so that riders get the most for their money.”

Sen. James Gaughran (D-Northport) said he, too, thought the process to approve the plan was “crazy,” and would like more input on behalf of his constituents. But, he noted, lawmakers will still have some say in how the plan is funded as part of the state budget process later this month. He said he’ll push for the LIRR to prioritize adding service on the Oyster Bay line.

“We have the power of the purse. And we want to make sure it’s done right,” Gaughran said.

MTA officials said they expect the Capital Program will be funded through a combination of its own revenue sources — including an estimated $15 billion from new congestion pricing tolls in Manhattan — and through federal, state and city government contributions.

MTA Board member Kevin Law, who represents Suffolk County, said that while he believes there is “room for improvement” in the Capital Program review process, he was ultimately pleased with the passage of a plan that “has a lot of good news for Long Island in it.”

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