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MTA should demolish construction red tape

A view of a tunnel for the LIRR

A view of a tunnel for the LIRR East Side Access project to Grand Central Terminal, due to open in 2022. Credit: Randi F. Marshall

Imagine doing a major home renovation without delegating one person to be in charge, without obtaining detailed cost estimates or without your pick of many different contractors.

For decades, that’s the scenario Metropolitan Transportation Authority capital projects have faced. The bigger the scale, the worse it gets. When the MTA wants to change a design or faces an unexpected glitch, 40 steps are required. Until those hurdles are cleared, workers keep doing the job the old way, only to have to tear it up and redo it the new way. This is why projects like the East Side Access effort to connect the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central Terminal have experienced years of delays and cost overruns, going from a $4.3 billion cost and an end date of 2009, to $11 billion with an opening in 2022.

MTA board member Scott Rechler, a developer, has proposed reforms to add some common sense to this expensive madness. Rechler suggests appointing a chief executive for each project (accountability); streamlining the “change order” process (efficiency); making contracts more uniform across the MTA (standardization); easing requirements to widen the field of bidders (competition); and reducing the need to customize parts and equipment (cost reduction).

As MTA chairman Joe Lhota said last week, remaking the MTA also requires a culture change, one that could eliminate the bureaucratic morass, and reward speed and flexibility. The agency also will have to work with the unions to reform work rules that could impede these changes.

If the MTA completes a gut renovation of its own house, it might be able to get work done on its tracks and stations, under budget and on time.