The wrangling over how to fund the MTA's five-year capital construction plan was prolonged and painful. The prospect of progress on the repeatedly delayed Second Avenue Subway served as both carrot and stick to get the city to give more money to the MTA. But when the final plan was unveiled Wednesday, funding for the project had shrunk to a third of its size.
In May, MTA Chairman Tom Prendergast wrote a letter to a deputy mayor, asking the city for more money. Prendergast suggested that $1 billion would be earmarked for phase 2 of the East Side line, bringing it north from 96th Street up to 125th Street.
In July, Prendergast sent another letter, also suggesting the MTA needed that money to complete the 2nd phase.
Then, last month, when the city still hadn't ponied up, Prendergast turned from coaxing to threatening and said the agency was preparing to cut the "urban portion" of the program. (Prendergast later walked that statement back.)
When a funding deal between the city and state was finally reached earlier this month, with the city contributing almost as much as it had been asked for, the MTA touted it as a win for everyone. It did not hint at major structural cuts to the program. Further savings, it said, would be achieved through "efficiencies."
But when the details of the revised plan came out at the MTA board meeting Wednesday, it turned out funding for the Second Avenue Subway had been cut 67 percent, from about $1.5 billion to just over $500 million. As WNYC reported, the agency wouldn't be able to begin the tunneling, or even award the contract for it, until 2020, instead only doing preliminary enginnering and utility work. The move was so unexpected that transportation watchers — not to mention the neighborhood's city council member and State Assembly representative — were caught off-guard.
"It's an economic injustice for the Second Avenue Subway to stop at 96th Street and no substantive work happen to connect it to a lower-income community that certainly needs the access as much as the first phase," said State Assembly member Robert Rodriguez, who represents East Harlem.
Phase 1, which runs from 63rd Street to 96th, is scheduled to open next year. Pushing the tunneling contract into 2020 or later means it will likely be a decade or more before the line opens north of 96th Street. (It will have taken nine years for the MTA to dig tunnels and finish stations on the first phase.) Rodriguez said East Harlem can't wait that long, especially because it slated to be rezoned — increasing its population.
"The 4/5/6 is the most overburdened line in the country," he said. "I think it's short-sighted, it's outrageous, and it's completely unfair." The MTA, he said, is closing its budget gap "at the expense of East Harlem residents."
Soon after WNYC spoke to Rodriguez, Representatives Carolyn Maloney and Charles Rangel released a statement saying they were "deeply concerned" about cuts to the Second Avenue subway.
"New Yorkers have been promised a full-build Second Avenue Subway since the 1920s," the pair wrote. "Based on the current schedule, 100 years will have passed and we will still be waiting. This ‘go slow’ approach to the Second Avenue Subway is a huge mistake.”
MTA spokesman Adam Lisberg denied that the MTA was intentionally harming Harlemites. He said the MTA realized that it would not get far enough along in the next four years to let out a tunneling contract.
"We lost a year during the difficult process of getting funding for the Second Avenue Subway," he said. "What you see in the book now is a plan that will get us moving on the Second Avenue Subway next phase and get us as far as we can go."
Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed. "It's a complicated project," he said. "We know the first phase has taken a long time — much more than any of us could have imagined — and I think it was bluntly an admission that the second phase will take quite a while."
But Tom Wright, the head of the Regional Plan Association, said a tunneling delay is as good as a tunnel deferred..
"To take a full billion out of that is not a cut — it's a gut," he said.
He added that by pushing the project back, the MTA would end up paying more in the long run.
"What we've seen with other projects, when they delay," he said, "it's not just that they take much longer, but the costs end up escalating enormously."
Another transit advocate said the good will that the MTA had built up by putting together the largest capital plan in the agency's history has evaporated.
"It's understandable that plans change," said Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, "but they left it up to reporters and civic groups to find these changes, like needles in a hay stack. This lack of transparency has fueled concerns about fairness."