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Transit watchdogs push for more transparency, better service from MTA capital plan

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“It’s like the CIA has taken charge of the future of the subways,” said a government accountability advocate

A silver train on elevated tracks in Queens. A MTA workers stands on the side of the tracks in a bright-orange vest and hard hat. Max Touhey

Public transportation watchdogs have called on the MTA and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to prioritize a series of projects and policy goals as the authority works to shape its next five-year capital plan—a key fiscal roadmap that will chart the transit authority’s course forward.

The newly formed Build Trust Campaign, which is made up of TransitCenter, the Riders Alliance, and the Tri-State Transportation Campaign and Reinvent Albany, released a 16-page report Monday urging for strategic project investments that will result in meaningful service improvements citywide rather than pouring funds into “gold-plated expansion mega-projects.” The effort comes after the hard-fought approval of congestion pricing in the state budget, among other efforts, that are set to generate billions in revenue toward sorely needed subway fixes.

“The stakes couldn’t be higher for Governor Cuomo and the MTA—to provide New Yorkers with a reliable, accessible transit system, they need to get the next capital program right,” TransitCenter Senior Associate Colin Wright said in a statement. “They have to invest in the projects that will improve service for the greatest number of people, and deliver those projects at costs that don’t break the bank.”

The campaign says the authority’s forthcoming capital plan, which covers 2020 to 2024, must address core maintenance needs and follow through on commitments to make 50 more stations ADA accessible, upgrade five of the system’s busiest lines with modern communications-based train control (CBTC) signaling, and add new cars to the city’s subway fleet, including 1,200 CBTC-equipped cars.

Greater transparency and oversight to hold the MTA accountable was also high on the campaign’s list of demands, with calls for benchmark cost targets for projects and the creation of a “user-friendly online project tracker” that make construction progress and cost updates easily accessible to New Yorkers. Advocates also urged state lawmakers to hold fall oversight hearings on the capital plan, which is expected to be made public in October.

“This 2020-2024 capital plan was created in complete secrecy with zero public input or public review,” said Rachael Fauss, Senior Research Analyst for Reinvent Albany, in a statement. “It’s like the CIA has taken charge of the future of the subways, buses and commuter rail. The Build Trust campaign aims to get America’s largest transit agency back to working with the public in a transparent, accountable way.”

Gov. Andrew Cuomo publicized his own wish list of priorities Monday outlined in a recent letter penned to the MTA Board of Directors, and while ramped up transparency wasn’t listed, Cuomo and transit advocates each stressed the desire to see greater station accessibility and upgraded signaling systems.

Other asks include resolving “Quality of Life” issues, like how lines across the system are increasingly delayed due to ‘soiled’ subway car conditions, and improving bus speeds.

But antithetical to advocates concerns is the governor’s call to pour funds into “long-delayed construction projects,” including East Side Access, the transformation of Penn Station, and the Second Avenue Subway—projects that pose a of risk of sucking up substantial funds from more mundane, yet crucial system maintenance.

The MTA did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether it is mulling the input.