Council Members Grill MTA Execs on Transit Costs While Cuomo Breaks Ground for Delta

MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim couldn't explain the agency's exorbitant cost problem, let alone how to fix it.

The governor broke ground on new facilities for Delta Airlines at LaGuardia Airport, which he called "a pillar of New York's transportation network." Photo: governor's office/Flickr
The governor broke ground on new facilities for Delta Airlines at LaGuardia Airport, which he called "a pillar of New York's transportation network." Photo: governor's office/Flickr

Compared to its international peers, the MTA’s capital construction costs are nothing short of outrageous. So with Governor Cuomo asking for more money from New York City to fix the subways, it’s understandable that City Council members want to know whether they’ll be getting good bang for their buck. But at a hearing earlier today, MTA Managing Director Ronnie Hakim couldn’t explain the agency’s cost problem, let alone how to fix it.

Pressed by Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito on why other cities manage to build the same amount of subway for much lower costs, Hakim fell back on a familiar excuse: New York City is special.

“In other parts of the globe, when subway systems are being built and/or expanded, they do not remotely come close to the challenges that we face here in New York City,” Hakim said, citing the city’s “maze” of underground utilities, its “fairly sophisticated” environmental regulations and safeguards, and the fact that New York is “an expensive part of the world in which to construct.”

Those are familiar lines, brandished often by MTA officials trying to explain away why the agency’s capital costs routinely come in at least two or three times higher than other global cities. But as Council Member Helen Rosenthal noted, London has century-old subways, a comparable regulatory regime, and a generally high-cost environment — and still manages to build rail lines at much lower cost than NYC.

Hakim was the highest-ranking MTA official testifying today. (Recently-appointed Chair Joe Lhota still works full-time at NYU Langone.) She was there to sell the agency’s $836 million “action plan” to fix flagging subway service — and compel the City Council to help pay for it. In the coming weeks the MTA will release a corresponding $8 billion “long-term” action plan.

“This is a critical moment for our city’s subway system,” Hakim said. “We are asking for your help to ensure that it is funded jointly between the city and the state as Chairman Lhota proposed.”

But council leaders weren’t impressed by the pitch.

“How exactly is the money going to be spent?” Mark-Viverito told reporters after Hakim’s testimony. “Some questions were answered, but there was a lot of specific information that was not provided.”

Pushed by Council Member Costa Constantinides, Hakim was unable to answer why the agency couldn’t divert funding from station upgrades and other cosmetic improvements pushed by Governor Cuomo in recent years. “We’re managing to do everything,” she said.

“Don’t tell me you’re managing to do everything, because you’re not,” Constantinides responded.

Fittingly, Governor Cuomo was in Queens today breaking ground — again — on his multi-billion dollar effort to renovate LaGuardia Airport, which he called “a pillar of New York’s transportation network.” Meanwhile, the transit system is infinitely more essential to the city’s wellbeing than any airport, but the governor continues to subsume any effort to fix the subways within his all-encompassing campaign to assert dominance over the mayor.

The city may not directly control how Cuomo and the MTA spend transit funds, but it does have leverage. Testifying this afternoon, TransitCenter Executive Director David Bragdon urged the City Council to use its budgeting power to negotiate with the governor and hold the MTA accountable to city residents.

Insisting on fuller disclosure of how the MTA will spend any city funds is essential to this process, he said. “Your attitude toward the MTA should become the mindset of an investor or a customer — not the mindset of a donor, or a reluctant victim of political extortion,” Bragdon said. “Is the additional $400 plus million currently being demanded from you the right number? Under the current regime, in which costs and outcomes are obscure, nobody knows.”