Earlier this week, the MTA board approved a $28.1 billion capital program covering 2010-2014, although nearly $10 billion of the plan is unfunded. The plan has undergone a few changes since it was first proposed, displaying a firmer commitment to transit on Long Island.
The agency could finally be ready to put significant resources behind transit-oriented development. In a Q&A distributed with the program, the MTA wrote that some LIRR capital dollars would be used to “support the efforts of municipalities in competitive planning grants and undertaking comprehensive station area/downtown planning and zoning studies as part of coordinating local land use with LIRR parking and intermodal investments.”
The Q&A also provides some clarity to the status of the Third Track project. “The LIRR remains committed to the Third Track… [but] must first complete the projects needed to support and maximize the benefits of East Side Access.” According to the LIRR, these include untangling the tracks at Jamaica, double-tracking the Main Line between Central Islip and Ronkonkoma, and other projects that add up to over $800 million — indeed a large chunk of the LIRR’s capital program. The agency does have $200 million from the 2005-09 program for smaller projects to improve Main Line service. But a 20-year plan submitted with the program suggests that the agency may “restart” the environmental review process for the Third Track in the 2015-19 capital program, pushing construction further down the line.
The next step for the plan is approval by the state’s Capital Program Review Board.
Debt Bomb Waits in Wings
Only the first two years of the capital plan are fully funded, meaning that elected officials will need to find new sources of revenue. The alternative — filling the $10 billion gap with bonds backed by operating revenues — would be unconscionable. This month state comptroller Tom DiNapoli, updating an earlier analysis, concluded that if the MTA used bonds to fill the capital program gap, annual debt service would increase from $1.5 billion in 2009 to $3.5 billion by 2020. That could potentially lead to a repeat of this year’s “doomsday budget” crisis, when transit riders were threatened with massive fare hikes and service cuts after the MTA projected an operating deficit of $1.2 billion.
Image: Hempstead LIRR station from Google Maps.