At yesterday’s MTA board meeting, something even rarer than a smooth commute happened: the board blocked a large spending project.
The project, part of a program called the Enhanced Station Initiative (ESI), proposed to spend $240 million to renovate eight stations in Manhattan and the Bronx. The changes are almost entirely cosmetic, mirroring the renovations done at the 53rd Street station in Brooklyn on the R line. Two stations in Astoria on the N and W are currently closed for similar work. Overall, the ESI called for overhauling 33 stations at a cost of around $1 billion.
But the ESI project, first proposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office in 2016, has long had its critics, particularly once the subway stopped functioning reliably. Board members echoed these concerns yesterday. “Frankly, I personally have my own reservations about is this the highest priority that we should be spending capital money on,” said MTA board member Carl Weisbrod, “when we know that the subway system simply running…being reliable in terms of arriving on time and having fewer delays is the most urgent issue for New Yorkers.”
But the biggest controversy has always been the ESI’s lack of accessibility improvements, namely by not installing elevators at the stations it shuts down for months and spends tens of millions of dollars improving. The subway system, by and large, is incredibly difficult to use for disabled people partly because of the lack of elevators across the system. One would think, then, that if the MTA is going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars shutting down and renovating stations, it would also make them fully ADA compliant in the process. But it isn’t: None of the ESI plans include elevator installations.
This issue was raised at an October 2017 meeting of Community Board 1 when the Astoria renovations were brought to the community. “You’re renovating and spending so much money on these stations, and yet they’re not going to have an elevator?” asked Daniel Aliberti, who heads the board’s Access and Disability Committee. “I think that it’s really disheartening for community members that have disabilities, and also to people with children who may need to use strollers or walkers or other assistance,” board member Katie Ellman echoed.
In response to these concerns, MTA spokesman Shams Tarek told DNAinfo that disabled people can take buses.
But this wasn’t good enough yesterday for the MTA board. In addition to accessibility concerns, the board felt it was not consulted on which stations were picked for the latest round of ESI projects. Before the meeting began, a New York City Department of Transportation representative passed around a printout comparing stations included in ESI with ones identified by New York City Transit as “priority” stations needing work. There was almost no overlap between the two lists.
So why did the MTA choose the stations it did? The short answer is, nobody knows, and that’s part of the problem. When asked, MTA chair Joe Lhota said the 33-station, $1 billion project is a “pilot” to test, in part, the MTA’s design-build procurement process, which combines designing, consulting, and constructing projects into a single procurement to increase efficiency and lower costs. He also argued the stations were chosen at less-trafficked locations because, again, it’s a pilot. However, one of the ESI stations proposed at yesterday’s meeting was a portion of Penn Station.
Department of Transportation commissioner Polly Trottenberg, who also sits on the MTA board, told the assembled press after the meeting that she had never heard the ESI project referred to as a “pilot” before and that it wouldn’t make sense to do so given the price tag of roughly $30 million per station.
As the board debated the new ESI project, it became clear the proposal did not have the votes to pass, so the vote was killed. It can still be brought up again at a later board meeting. The expectation is the MTA and city will work closer to come up with a list of stations that pleases both parties while addressing accessibility concerns.
But the most noteworthy comment of the day came from Trottenberg when she was asked why this project, which was announced in 2016, is just being contested now. She replied that, as a new board member then, she felt “deferential” and knew it was a project Cuomo cared a lot about.
This comment highlights both how we got into this general subway mess and why we might finally be getting out of it. To be sure, Trottenberg was not the only deferential member of the MTA board. Past meetings have been largely characterized by board members voicing concerns about major projects before voting for them anyway. There has always been a palpable sense in the New York City transit community that the board rubber-stamps almost any proposal that crosses its agenda. AmNewYork transit reporter Vincent Barone tweeted that it was the first time he could remember the board delaying a project through strong opposition, to say nothing of one so prized by Cuomo.
It’s probably not a coincidence the board felt empowered to push back on a project in its first meeting since New York City Transit president Andy Byford began work — especially a project that undermines the subway’s accessibility goals. Byford bucked trends from previous leadership and made accessibility one of the four pillars of his tenure (along with subway functionality, bus reliability, and employee morale). When he called accessibility “a passion of mine” at a board meeting, any other members who felt similarly knew they had a powerful ally.
Contrary to the narrative others have forwarded, this is not another chapter in the ongoing de Blasio vs. Cuomo feud. It’s so much more important than that. This is about the MTA board, for the first time in most people’s memory, doing its job. It asked good questions about a questionable use of MTA funds and, when it didn’t get the answers it liked, ensured the measure would not pass until the concerns were addressed. This is what good governance looks like. More of this, please.