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MTA capital projects plagued by cost overruns, delays: audit

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A new report by state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli highlights blunders made by the MTA, but transit advocates say it doesn’t go far enough

MTA workers replacing rails and plates north of 57th Street on the N/R/Q Line.
MTA/Patrick Cashin

The MTA is vexed by cost overruns and project delays that can be pinned on design flaws, a lack of accountability for hired contractors, and the bureaucratic mess that is the public benefit corporation, says a scathing new report by State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli.

The report, issued to the MTA on Monday, focuses on six of the agency’s 2,000-some projects included its 2015-2019 capital budget. Of those six projects, four encountered design-related issues during construction that lead to delays and additional costs. In the most egregious example, the agency forgot to account for the raising of a platform edge at the 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue station to accommodate wheelchair users, a design blunder that cost $617,000 to amend.

The audit also found that three of the projects tagged with design errors had cost overruns of $1.84 million, and five of the projects that required a design phase were late on the completion of that phase by an average of seven months.

On four of the five projects, auditors found that employees of contractors hired by the MTA were not always present, yet the contractors still received payments. The report points to signal-related work on the 5 train in the Bronx, where scheduled workers were paid despite being accounted for just 52 percent of the time in the period surveyed by the audit. Such oversights contributed to $43.2 million in cost overruns for the six projects included in the comptroller’s findings.

The report also delved into the lack of oversight and accountability within the agency, particularly when it comes to responding to contractors’ Requests For Information. The agency, which has a 20-day window to respond to the inquiries, responded from seven to 132 days late for 16 of the 35 RFI’s surveyed in the audit.

DiNapoli issued a series of recommendations that ultimately seek to make the agency more responsible for its errors, by determining the causes of its omissions and putting a plan to action to avoid future omissions; by requiring construction site managers to verify their employees on site on a daily basis; and ensuring that the MTA meets its response due dates, among other recommendations.

Transit advocates, however, say the report does not go far enough in addressing the MTA’s near-characteristic cost overruns and project delays.

“The DiNapoli audit is a dud because it doesn’t aim squarely at the factors that cause high MTA construction costs. At best it will have a marginal impact,” TransitCenter spokesperson Ben Fried said in a statement. “This report sheds a little light on project management but otherwise doesn’t get us any closer to understanding how to wrangle the MTA’s cost problem under control.”

The MTA also refutes the audit, with agency spokesperson Shams Tarek saying the report “cherry picks” just six out of more than 2,000 projects for review.

“While we don’t agree with most of the auditors’ findings, the MTA is taking aggressive actions to hold contractors more accountable, implementing key reforms passed as part of the State budget and included in the transformation plan recently approved by the board, which will allow us to deliver projects on time and on budget, as our customers expect,” Tarek said in a statement.