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How to fix the MTA’s ‘broken’ capital construction process: report

The Regional Plan Association calls the MTA’s capital project delivery process "broken"

The Regional Plan Association—which has already proposed some radical changes to get New York's public transit in a state of good repair once more—has taken a hard look at how the MTA builds new subways and commuter rail lines with a new report, “Building Rail Transit Projects Better for Less.”

In analyzing three rail projects recently built in New York City, the RPA found that the cost of construction is more than twice as high here than in cities like London, Paris, and Los Angeles. The reasons, the group found, go way beyond overstaffing, outdated work rules or padded contracts (issues the New York Times took a hard look at late last year.)

“From decisions by political leaders at the outset of projects to the final stages of construction, entrenched practices and procedures lead to a cascading series of cost overruns, delays (which lead to more cost overruns) and a complete failure of cost containment,” the report states.

Scott Rechler, chair of RPA's Board of Directors, puts it more simply: “The MTA’s capital project delivery process is broken,” he said in a statement. “Projects take far too long, and cost way too much.”

The RPA’s 80-page report breaks down project costs, as well as planning and delivery issues, behind the Second Avenue Subway, East Side Access, and the 7 Line Extension. The report then puts forth 11 suggested reforms—from easier fixes to more meaningful change—that the group says could reduce project costs by at least 25 to 33 percent.

Such reforms include creating realistic budgets and project timelines, engaging the public early and often, and putting one team of professionals in charge of each new project from start to end. The RPA suggests streamlining the environmental review process, which takes markedly longer than in other cities. Funding should move to a 10-year pipeline for large capital projects, as "the current five-year outlook is insufficient to plan and fund large-scale capital projects."

The MTA should also employ the use of new insurance and liability models, which has worked in London and Australia. It was also suggested that the transit agency replace its traditional "design-bid-build" procurement for major projects with the practice of "design-build," in which a single contract for both design and construction is awarded.

The RPA believes future transit megaprojects should incorporate land use and zoning changes to capture the value created through the surrounding redevelopment, much like what happened with the 7 extension alongside the rezoning of the west side.

As for labor and work rules, the report says those could be changed to deliver projects faster and at lower costs. The RPA recommends creating a public institute to supply a trained pool of labor for future projects, which would help benchmark labor supply for the MTA's construction pipelines. Finally, the MTA could start using third-party trade labor for all jobs, outside the existing unionized labor force.

The entire 80-page report is a lot to take in, but worth a read, because as RPA president Tom Wright puts it, “we can’t keep building like we have in the past.” He continues, “This report shows the way for the MTA, the Governor and other stakeholders to make meaningful changes in how big projects get done. This is crucial to rebuilding public trust and laying the foundation to both both fix the subways and expand our transit network.”