The MTA’s Shaky Understanding of “On Time and On Budget”

Michael Bloomberg "opening" the 7 train extension, which is still not actually open. Photo by the MTA's Patrick Cashin.Michael Bloomberg "opening" the 7 train extension, which is still not actually open. Photo by the MTA's Patrick Cashin.

In a twelve-step program, admitting you have a problem is the first step on the road to recovery.

So, too, for the MTA, and its addiction to high costs, with each of its rail tunneling projects much more expensive on a per-mile basis than any other outside New York City.

Unfortunately, the agency is in deep denial about its problems controlling costs and meeting deadlines. In fact, it’s gotten so bad that its officials (or, in one case, the mayor) cannot admit when their projects are delayed or go over budget.

This week’s example comes from an article in Gotham Gazette about disruptions to merchants on Second Avenue due to construction of the Line That Time Forgot. “The $4.451 billion first phase,” the author wrote, “is on time and on budget according to MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz.”

Except that it’s neither on time nor on budget. When ground was (re)broken on the Second Avenue subway in 2007, the Upper East Side phase was supposed to cost $3.8 billion and open in 2013. Fast forward to today, and the project is $650 million over budget and three years late (so far), with a projected opening in December 2016. (Though the feds have cast doubt on those targets.)

That’s the latest lie the MTA has told about its timeliness and adherence to budgets, but nowhere near the most egregious. In 2013, amid more concerns about the effects on local businesses due to the MTA’s interminable work downtown on the Fulton Center renovation, Michael Horodniceanu, the MTA’s construction chief – “possibly the least well-known and most respected high-level M.T.A. official” – stressed “several times” that the project was “on time, and on budget,” set for a June 2014 opening.

Not even close. When the MTA broke ground on the project in 2004, it was supposed to open by the end of 2007 and cost $750 million. By the time Horodniceanu was reassuring City Council that the project was on time and on budget, its cost had ballooned to $1.4 billion (which would make it the world’s most expensive train station, if not for the Port Authority’s PATH extravaganza down the street) and its opening had been pushed back to 2014, adding up to seven whole years of delays.

Not only that, but Fulton Center didn’t even open to transit riders until November. So even by Horodniceanu’s 2013 standards, the station was five months delayed. The retail – a huge component of the project – still has no official opening date.

And the MTA isn’t the only one willing to spout the “on time and on budget” lie about its projects.

When outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg cut the ribbon the 7 train extension in his last month in office, in December 2013, he told the press that the project was “basically on budget and on time.”

“Basically” was doing a lot of work there. When bonds were sold in 2006, the project was projected to cost $2 billion and be complete by 2013. While the total cost didn’t rise much, that’s because the scope of the project was drastically reduced – the Hell’s Kitchen station at 10th Avenue and 41st Street was eliminated entirely, breaking a promise the city had made to developers when it rezoned the land around it for more intense uses. Estimates for adding the station back in are now at $450 million, up from $200 million in 2006 when the station deletion was still speculative.

And as for being “on time,” Bloomberg’s ribbon cutting was a complete sham. We’re now into the second year of the de Blasio administration, and the line still isn’t open for passenger use; opening is now projected for June.

The MTA has much bigger issues than its fudging of “on time and on budget,” but it’s indicative of a broader denial at the agency about its problems. If they can’t even admit when their projects are delayed and run over budget, there seems to be little hope that they’ll fix the underlying problems.

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