It takes staggering amounts of money to keep the systems run by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority safe and modern, and to expand them to meet growing regional needs. And getting commitments for staggering amounts of money out of politicians, who, in the end, must get the cash from taxpayers, is endlessly difficult. So the finalization of a $29 billion five-year capital plan to expand and repair the MTA's systems is cause for some modest celebration.
In the end, the deal came down largely as it should have, with the state promising $8.3 billion, the city kicking in $2.5 billion, and the MTA paying the rest. Most of the MTA share will come via bonding, and some from efficiencies that president Thomas Prendergast must find. But Prendergast says there won't be any large or unexpected fare or toll hikes to repay the borrowed money, though there still will be regular moderate fare increases, such as the 4 percent hikes scheduled for 2017 and 2019.
For Long Island Rail Road users, the deal promises a state of good repair, shorthand for the fact that it takes a tremendous amount of money to improve service and to keep trains, rails, signals and switches working and safe. The funding also guarantees that the LIRR will see continued construction of a second track from Farmingdale to Ronkonkoma.
In addition, the MTA is doubling down on its promise of a 2022 finish of the LIRR's East Side Access project to Grand Central Terminal. The project has consistently been seven years away from completion since 2006. Prendergast says it is more of a priority than ever, with existing East River tunnels needing post-Sandy repairs. Also moving ahead for the MTA is a long-overdue payment system that embraces convenience and speed by 2019. And the use of much of the $29 billion to maintain and ease congestion on city subways and buses is welcome news to many Long Islanders.
One thing that won't happen on the MTA's rail lines, although federal law requires it, is the addition by Dec. 31 of positive train control, a system that deters crashes or derailments caused by inattention or too-high speeds. Although the system is badly needed, Prendergast says it's a huge undertaking. The system was deemed necessary by Congress after a 2008 rail crash in Southern California killed 25 people. Since then, positive train control gets attention after every fatal train wreck, including one in the Bronx in 2013, but progress has been slow. Although the MTA has worked on positive train control for years, Prendergast doesn't foresee completion before 2018.
Two projects bypassed now that need attention soon for the good of the Island are electrification of all lines to points east and a third track for the main branch. Both would improve reliability and service.
It's easy to look at the wrangling over this funding plan as ugly, but doing so ignores history. The last five-year capital plan, in 2010, had to be broken into a three-year piece and a two-year piece to be approved; money for a five-year plan just couldn't be found. So this time it is worth noting that while some arms had to be twisted, the money was finally found to keep the trains running on time.