Andy Byford's plan to modernize New York's transit system -- one of the nation's oldest -- triggered immediate questions about its cost and how to fund it.

Byford, the president of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's New York City Transit, unveiled his blueprint Wednesday. Called "Fast Forward," it centers around overhauling signal systems, with priority on the most crowded corridors over the first five years of a 10-year plan; resdesigning bus routes across the city's five boroughs; and improving accessibility.

New York City Transit President Andy Byford at an award ceremony on February 9, 2018.
"This isn't just a tweak, or a few adjustments here or there, but a full overhaul," said New York City Transit president Andy Byford. Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

"This isn't just a tweak, or a few adjustments here or there, but a full overhaul," Byford told board members at the MTA board's monthly meeting in lower Manhattan.

Byford called on the board to expedite its next capital plan proposal, for 2020 to 2024. A state review panel must approve any request.

According to Byford, the cost estimate is a work in progress.

"I know you all want to know about costs, and we want to do this right. We'll update on the cost when we're sure," Byford said.

Sticker shock after some initial estimates leaked out in the media Tuesday night may have prompted the authority to backpedal on numbers.

MTA Chairman Joseph Lhota, citing the many variables involved, downplayed reports of a roughly $37 billion price tag over the 10 years, split about equally in five-year increments. The ultimate tab, he said, would be in the context of the authority's next capital plan, to cover 2020 to 2024.

"All estimates are premature and inevitably, not accurate," Lhota said right before Byford's presentation. He called Byford's plan "a solid road map to modernize all of New York City transit, not just the subway system."

The plan would speed up signal replacement and add communications-based train control on major lines including the 4, 5 and 6 lines along Lexington Avenue and the blue-coded A, C and E lines that meander through Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.

Byford said the fast-track signal work could shorten the completion date for the entire system by 75%, to 10 years from 40.

While work would involve night and weekend closures, Byford said there would be no full-line closures on weekdays.

The plan would also add 650 new subway cars and 2,800 new buses, make about 50 more stations compliant with accessibility laws under the Americans with Disabilities Act, and feature a fare-payment system to replace the current MetroCards.

About three-fourths of the MTA's stations are not ADA compliant.

In addition, Byford intends to reorganize management and supervisory structures.

"Internal agency reform is crucial to fixing the broader problems within the transit system," said Kate Slevin, senior vice-president at transportation think tank Regional Plan Association.

The MTA is one of the largest municipal bond issuers, with roughly $37 billion of debt.

"I would be cautious and tempered in putting out numbers," said board member Scott Rechler. According to Rechler, the MTA's history of lateness and cost overruns in major projects make the authority a target for skeptics among political leaders and the public. Rechler also warned that the MTA's sometimes intractable bureaucracy may prompt Byford to adjust the plan.

Lhota, speaking to reporters after the meeting, promised a "rigorous analysis" on the cost.

"The MTA has been ridiculed in the past, significantly, for not having the proper costing involved, and so I don't want to be part of a system where a year from now, you're gonna say 'hey Lhota, you said it was gonna cost a buck and now you say it will cost a buck and a quarter.' "

Crisis has engulfed the state-run MTA over the past two years, with breakdowns, delays, track fires and overcrowding prompting calls for the authority to start anew. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who controls the MTA and its board, declared a state of emergency for the authority in June 2017.

Funding for the MTA has been an ongoing battle. The authority, which operates the city's subways and buses, Long Island and Metro-North commuter railroads and several intraborough bridges and tunnels, was able to secure its $29 billion capital program only after drag-out political wrangling among Cuomo, MTA leadership, and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, which agreed to commit $2.5 billion to the capital plan.

The triangle of conflict surrounding the MTA, the state itself and the city has surrounded the authority since Gov. Nelson Rockefeller created the authority in 1968.

"However, the current environment has put this dynamic under a microscope," said Gurtin Municipal Bond Management.

De Blasio, cornered by a mandate in the New York State budget, funded $418 million to subway improvements in his fiscal 2019 executive budget, which the City Council is deliberating. He has balked so far at additional funding and has called for a millionaire's tax, which Albany leaders consider a non-starter.

"While the devil is always in the details, early reports suggest the MTA is finally focusing on the infrastructure riders need to get around," de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips said in a statement.

According to city Comptroller Scott Stringer, subway deterioration and its resultant delays have cost the city's economy up to $400 million annually.

“Today’s Fast Forward plan is a big step in the right direction, but now it’s up to the MTA to make sure it’s implementation is not slow-walked," Stringer said Wednesday.

Byford, who headed transit systems in Toronto and London before arriving in New York in January, unveiled a bus action plan last month that will include double-decker buses and various street-management measures in conjunction with the city's Department of Transportation.

Nick Sifuentes, executive director of the advocacy group Tri-State Transportation Campaign, sees hope for the system.

"It’s tempered with skepticism, yes, but I think in Andy Byford we have a New York City Transit president who is committed to doing the right thing," he said.

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