Gov. Cuomo likes to be the responsible one — the pragmatic protector of New York City against Mayor de Blasio’s purported back-to-the-’70s policies. But now it’s Cuomo who’s helping the mayor take us back to the bad old days.
The governor has just postponed the Second Avenue Subway, something that last happened 41 years ago. And he doesn’t have the excuse that New York had back then: Gotham was practically bankrupt.
If this is how we treat our important investment projects in the good times, what will happen when the bad times return?
Will we ever get a real Second Avenue Subway?
For nearly a century, the project has been a barometer of New York’s fiscal and civic health. City planners first proposed the line from downtown to the Harlem River in 1929, just in time for the stock-market crash and the Great Depression.
Mid-century politicians kept promising to revive the idea, but didn’t get around to it until 1968.
The city and state were booming, and to relieve “enormous congestion” on the Lex, Gov. Rockefeller OK’d the plan, plus a “new Bronx line” to connect to it.
Six years later, the city went bust, and the state was saving us from bankruptcy. Mayor Abe Beame killed the project in December 1974. Four months later, he promised the end of construction was just a “deferment,” with construction to start when the money for it turned up.
That wouldn’t happen for . . . another 33 years. In 2007, toward the end of the biggest economic boom the city has seen in modern history, Gov. Eliot Spitzer and Mayor Michael Bloomberg broke, or re-broke, the ground. As early as next Christmas, the first three stations of the new subway will open, all on the Upper East Side.
But this subway line was supposed to be 16 stations. The next phase of Second Avenue should go up to Harlem. And eventually, the train is supposed to go down to Wall Street (we seem to have given up on The Bronx).
But not anytime soon. Last week, Cuomo’s MTA signed off on a plan to delay tunneling for the project, from sometime in the next four years to sometime in the five years after that.
Why? The MTA and the city are telling transit advocates that it’s not money, but time. They just can’t start the work fast enough because they have to buy up property and do design and engineering work first. Plus, they lost a year in construction work as the pols dithered over the funding plan, anyway.
Maybe — but the more obvious culprit is money. Delaying the subway will “save” the state and city $1 billion over the next four years. Indeed, in its official capital-plan document, the MTA lists a lack of “funding availability” as the first reason for the delay.
Without this cut, the “fully funded” $29 billion investment plan that Cuomo and de Blasio keep touting for the MTA simply doesn’t work.
Already, the “fully funded” plan depends on vague cost savings, plus $7.3 billion from the state and $1.8 billion from the city, money neither the mayor nor the governor has identified.
So Cuomo slashed $1 billion from Second Avenue, and gave the city $5 million instead to “study” yet another unfunded subway on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. That way, Cuomo has enough money to keep paying to bring the Long Island Rail Road to Grand Central — a $10.2 billion project that will consume nearly $3.1 billion over the next four years, or 70 percent of the MTA’s expansion budget.
A perfectly fair trade, if you’re our slightly clueless mayor, who never busies his head with pesky numbers.
It’s not the end of the world if we break ground on the northern part of Second Avenue in 2021 instead of 2019.
But what happens next? What if, say, East Side Access costs even more — consuming yet more capital starting in 2020? Or what if the economy crashes? That’s not an unreasonable assumption, considering the last recession ended nearly seven years ago. Even without a recession, the MTA faces a $175 million deficit that must be filled starting little more than two years ago.
If Second Avenue is a little bit expendable now, it will be very expendable then.
Maybe Lex-line commuters will see real relief sometime in the next century?
Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal.