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Cover Story - May 2003

Going Our Way

The MTA's Capital Program Picking Up Steam

by Dan Friedman

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's capital program means an improved and expanding mass transit system for New York/New Jersey/Connecticut commuters.

It also means a lot of work for the region's contractors and engineers.

Mysore Nagaraja, New York City Transit's chief engineer, said that in 2002 the New York City Transit Capital Program Management Department provided construction awards of $2.2 billion, the largest amount of construction work since the inception of the program 21 years ago. Last year 28 contracts were competitively bid and six were awarded on a negotiated basis.

The capital program is funded primarily by a combination of federal funds and MTA bonds, with only a small fraction coming from the city, so despite the city's fiscal crisis, transit construction in 2003 will most likely outpace last year.

In testimony before the MTA's Capital Program Oversight Committee on Jan. 21, William King, the agency's deputy director of construction oversight, said the value of all projects expected to be committed in 2003 is $2.8 billion. Approximately 50 percent of that will go New York City Transit projects.

The other commitment targets are $200 million for the Long Island Rail Road; $200 million for the Metro-North Railroad; over $600 million for the East Side Access project, which will bring LIRR trains into Grand Central Station; and $300 million for MTA Bridges and Tunnels.
With so much work at stake, it's no wonder that the construction industry takes a keen interest in the MTA's capital program and seeks a voice in the ongoing discussions about the agency's priorities.

From 'Catch-Up' to Growth
Despite the fact that the MTA is the largest transportation network in the Western Hemisphere, serving 2.3 billion riders a year, nearly eight million people every workday, its was allowed to rot for decades. Through most of the 1960s and '70s the system received less than 30 percent of the funds it needed to sustain itself.

"The system was completely falling apart," Nagaraja said. "The cars were covered with graffiti; there were derailments, all those things."

To deal with the results of years of neglect, the MTA in 1982 launched a series of five-year capital programs that have allowed it to think ahead and be proactive instead of simply reacting to crises.

"The MTA has taken a holistic approach to operations and maintenance of the system," said Nicholas LaRocco, a vice president with Parsons Transportation Group Inc., who is working as program manager for the MTA's new communications-based control system. "They aren't just doing one piece at a time. They're integrating everything - trains, tracks, signal system, power system, customer information. It's proven to be the right way to do it. Things have improved across the board."

Over the last 20 years, the MTA has invested $40 billion in repairing and reconstructing its infrastructure. "The first three five-year plans tackled the problems of neglect. They were strictly about catching up," Nagaraja said. "Today 100 percent of the tracks are in good repair, 100 percent of the cars are in good repair. Now for the first time, with the current five-year plan, we are able to begin the process of modernizing and expanding the system."

The work involved includes everything from computerizing New York City Transit's signal system to building a new subway line along the East Side.

New Technology
The communications-based train control system that LaRocco is overseeing is being installed along the Canarsie Line (the L Train) and from there will be exported throughout the system. Utilizing on-board computers and radios, it allows trains to be in touch with the appropriate NYC Transit communication room (and with each other) without wayside signals, although the wayside signals will be kept in place as back-up.

"It will improve safety; there's no way that trains can run into each other with this system in place," said Richard Maitino, who spent 32 years as an official with the New York State Department of Transportation before becoming a vice president at Parsons Transportation.

"In addition to the safety factor, the potential exists with this to increase by up to 20 percent the number of trains that can be run within an hour," he added.

The MTA is also building, for the first time, a centralized control center for New York City Transit's subways. It will be located at 54th Street and Ninth Avenue and will use a computerized system to keep track of every train at all times.

"We run a lot of trains, but currently they are not automatically located," Nagaraja said. "If they get stuck they have to notify us by radio. The new command center will know exactly where every train is. If one gets stuck or slowed down, a decision (about what to do) can be made instantaneously."

The MTA also has been busy building a fiber optic network within the city's subway system. It is in place in the IRT and is in the process of being extended into every station in the city. Among other things, the fiber will dramatically improve the public address system. The old copper network, as anyone one who rides the trains knows, leaves much to be desired.

In short, the MTA is adapting 21st Century technology to a system with roots in the 19th. "The MTA is literally leaping over a generation of technology," LaRocco said. "It is taking a system that was ignored for quite a number of years and advancing it to the point where it is setting the stage for other transportation systems."

New Tunnels, Tracks and Trains
Also under way is the East Side Access project. Currently, commuters on the LIRR - some 270,000 a day - can only disembark in Manhattan at Penn Station, on the island's West Side. To get to the East Side, the direction from which they came, they must take cross-town subways or buses.

The lack of connectivity among various components of the metropolitan area's mass transit system resulted from different parts of the system being originally built by private for-profit companies with no interest in hooking up their tracks with those of their competitors.

The East Side Assess project involves building a tunnel from Harold Interlocking, a switching station in Queens, to the existing 63rd Street Tunnels under the East River. Currently, the upper tunnel at 63rd Street brings the "R" and "F" trains in and out of Queens; the lower, unused, tunnel will be utilized by the LIRR. On the Manhattan side, a new tunnel will be dug from 63rd Street and the river to Grand Central Terminal, making the East Side readily available to Long Islanders.

Kiewit Constructors Inc. has been at work since October building a slurry wall for a pit adjacent to Northern Boulevard in Queens that will serve as the staging point for the Queens tunnel. At a Capital Program Oversight Committee meeting on March 18, Tony Japha, who is overseeing the East Side Access project for the MTA, reported that the contractor had encountered an extraordinary number of boulders, which has put the project about seven weeks behind schedule.

Metro-North's improvements to the Highbridge Yard in the west Bronx are an intrinsic part of the East Side Access project. The expanded yard will serve as a storage and maintenance center for Metro-North. Currently Metro-North uses the lowest tunnels of Grand Central for maintenance. Under the new plan those tunnels will be turned over to the LIRR.

The Highbridge Yard is being developed for Metro-North under a design-build contract by Slattery Skanska Inc. and Edwards and Kelcey Inc. It was 80 percent complete in March.

The East Side Access project also calls for a new LIRR station to be constructed at Queens Boulevard in Sunnyside, Queens. In addition, there is talk of, although yet no funding for, building a tunnel for Metro-North into Penn Station so that Westchester commuters can have direct access to the West Side. That move assumes that bringing 24 peak-hour LIRR trains into Grand Central will free up tracks at Penn Station for Metro-North trains.

As of the end of March, only $5 million in engineering, construction and project management contracts for East Side Access had been awarded out of the $640 million forecast by the MTA for 2003.

Japha said that the Federal Transportation Agency had recommended every project in the East Side Access pipeline, but that the MTA was still pushing for more federal funding. "We want to make sure we maximize our federal backing before releasing for bid," he told the Capital Program Oversight Committee March 18.

Second Avenue to Roll?
At a much earlier stage of development is the long-anticipated Second Avenue Subway, a new underground line to be constructed along Second Avenue for 8.5 mi., from 125th Street in Harlem to Hanover Square in the Financial District. While the MTA and the administration of Michael Bloomberg remain firmly committed to the project, the current capital plan has no construction funds set aside for it; construction is not expected to get under way until the next five-year plan beginning in 2005.

Since the Third Avenue "El" was taken down in 1955, the East Side has been served only by the Lexington Avenue line (the Nos. 4, 5 and 6). In the meantime, the area has been transformed from Yorkville, a German-American working class neighborhood of mostly six-story tenements, into the Upper East Side, a middle-class area full of high-end, high-rise residential buildings, and the density of population has increased significantly.

Today the Lexington Avenue is the most overcrowded line in the city, carrying approximately half a million people per day. Its location under Lexington also leaves residents farther east with a bus ride or a considerable hike to the train.

Some community activists from the boroughs have advocated for the extension of the new line through the East Bronx as far as Co-op City as well as into Brooklyn at the other end. However, at least for the immediate future, the line will stay within Manhattan, but it still will be the largest expansion of the subway system since the 1920s.

"One only has to ride the Lexington Avenue to see how important this project is," said Maitino. "It's the parallel of what goes on in the highway system - when its use increases, you expand it."

The MTA is currently completing the supplemental draft environmental impact statement for the Second Avenue Subway and is concurrently conducting preliminary engineering work, with DMJM+Harris and Arup Group Ltd. serving as prime consultants. Upon completion of the environmental analysis and preliminary engineering, the MTA will request a record of decision authorizing the start of final design and construction from the FTA.

During the final design phase, final drawings, technical specifications and contract documents necessary to obtain construction bids will be prepared. Once the bids are given out, the construction phase can begin, which Nagaraja said will be in 2005.

Further Down the Track
There are other longer-term projects that Nagaraja said the MTA is interested in pursuing. The most talked about of these is an extension of the No. 7 line west (and slightly south) to the Javits Convention Center. Currently, the No. 7 connects Flushing, in eastern Queens, to Times Square. There are no subways farther west than Eighth Avenue.

The extension of the No. 7 is being pushed hard by Daniel Doctoroff, the city's deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding. He argues that the transformation of the Far West Side from an area of low-rise industrial and unused freight lines into a new commercial office district depends upon the No. 7's extension. While the MTA is in the midst of doing an environmental impact study for the extension, how it would be funded remains unsettled.

Doctoroff said recently that the administration favored tax-increment funding. Under this proposal, the city would guarantee construction bonds to be paid for, eventually, by the presumed tax revenue increase that would come with the commercial development of the Far West Side. It is a method never before used in New York City. Its advantage (should it work) is that it would not put the No. 7 extension into competition with the Second Avenue Subway for MTA capital funds.

Another project that has garnered a lot of attention is the construction of a Fulton Transit Center to serve as a Grand Central-like terminal for Lower Manhattan. It would connect various subway lines, the PATH trains from New Jersey and perhaps even the LIRR.

This idea came to the forefront in the wake of the damage done to both the MTA and PATH train stations during the attacks on the World Trade Center. The federal government last year made $1.8 billion in emergency transportation grants available to New York, which helped get the Nos. 1 and 9 up and running. Nagaraja said that restoring the 1 and 9 under schedule was one of his proudest achievements as the MTA's chief engineer.

The emergency federal funds, however, amount to only a down payment on a full-scale downtown railroad hub; it is not yet clear from where the rest of the money would come.

Two other long-term projects are being studied by the MTA. One is a direct subway link to LaGuardia Airport, which is now only accessible by bus or auto. Another, which has reached the feasibility and benefit-cost study phase, is the construction of one or more new tunnels under the Hudson River to increase the flow of commuters and freight to and from New Jersey.

The project, which is referred to as "Access to the Region's Core," is being conceived of as joint effort by the MTA, the Port Authority of NY&NJ and the New Jersey Transit Corp. Funding for the construction of these proposals will have to wait, at best, for the next five-year capital plan.

Planning and Priorities
A number of well-placed engineers and contractors questioned the MTA's expansion priorities, although none was willing to go on the record. The East Side Access and Second Avenue Subway projects, the critics maintained, will simply better move around commuters who already use the mass transit system.

What is needed, they argued, is infrastructure capable of bringing more workers into Manhattan. Without the Fulton Terminal and the new tunnels under the Hudson, they maintained, there could be no long-term job growth in the Big Apple.

"If there was an endless money supply, we could do a lot of wonderful things," Nagaraja said. "But first of all, we have to alleviate overcrowding on the Lexington Avenue line. East Side access for the Long Island Railroad will bring a lot of people to the East Side by mass transit who now drive or take taxis, and that will be better all around."

Jerry Gold, a vice president with Carter-Burgess, is the project manager for his firm in its role as independent engineering consultant for the MTA's capital program. He said success of the capital program can't be judged by the infrastructure alone. Renovated stations and new subway lines result in further development of the surrounding area, he noted.

As an example, he pointed to the renovation of the LIRR's Atlantic Avenue terminal in Brooklyn. Inspired by that renovation, Forest City Ratner Cos. is building a 400,000-sq.-ft. office and retail complex across the street from the terminal.

"It will be very accessible for our employees from all over the metro area," said Robert Grieves, a spokesperson for The Bank of New York Co., which has signed a long-term lease for the bulk of the new building. "It's two subway stops from the financial district and minutes by the Long Island Railroad from Midtown."

"It's what's happening above ground that's most exciting," Gold said. "Mass transit improvements generate projects like the one by Forest City and that creates revenue and jobs."

Nagaraja agreed, noting that the MTA had so far improved 140 stations and that in many cases the improvements had sparked revitalization of the surrounding neighborhoods. (Articles on two subway station renovations appear in this issue.)

Nagaraja emphasized the complexity of decision making in an organization as vast as the MTA. He said the agency now looks at the anticipated needs for the next 20 years, then prioritizes them within the five-year plans. From there, work is broken down year-by-year.

"Decisions are based, first of all, on the resources available including the expertise needed," Nagaraja added. "Next we work with the operations people to see when we can take tracks down with the least disruption. We try to stagger the work so that no one line is affected unduly. This requires a very intricate planning process."

Working Together
General contractors who have worked with the MTA on its capital program in recent years expressed surprise at how easy the agency is to work with.

The Tully Construction Co. Inc., which hadn't worked with the MTA for 15 years, last year partnered with A.J. Pegno Construction Corp. to rebuild the Nos. 1 and 9 train station that had been destroyed on Sept. 11th. "There was great cooperation on that project," said Peter Tully, the company's president. "When problems came up, they were addressed without delay."

Dimitrios Malakidis, executive vice president of M.A. Angeliades Inc., which is currently rehabilitating five stations along the No. 5 line in the Bronx and doing rehab on the concrete and structural steel in the A Line tunnel between 125th to 168th streets, added: "With the MTA, you're dealing with people who know construction and who concentrate on construction. … You don't have to deal with middlemen; you deal directly with the people who will accept the project. They have a good handle on running their own organization and that makes it easier to work with them."

"My secret for working with contractors is simple," said Nagaraja. "I tell my people, we have to focus on getting the project done, and nothing can be done without serious partnering. If everyone has their own agenda, it won't work. If general contractors are just out to squeeze us for all they can and if we're out to screw them, nothing happens.

"All the stakeholders need to cooperate. We understand that contractors are in business and we want them to make money. They make money by getting the job done right. So it's a big team effort."

To make the planning and operations even more efficient in the future, the MTA is hoping to spin off a MTA Capital Corp., which, as a separate entity, will oversee the system's capital plans.

"You have to admire the MTA for working so hard and persistently to re-invent themselves," Gold said. "They've really stepped up to the plate over the last 20 years. The MTA Capital Corp. will be their latest reorganization and it's a great idea. It will further address the coordination of the system's expansion."

Nagaraja said his greatest achievement is that: "I've gotten the program to the point that it's a well-oiled machine. Projects get done faster and almost always within budget. The Times Square (station) renovation and the 1 and 9 restoration were done in record time. The Lexington and 54th Street station will be done within time and budget.

"I want to keep the machine efficient and make it even more so. My motto is 'continuous improvement.' I'm very committed to that."

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