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New York Subway Cuts Back Plans to Renovate Stations

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 4/3/2018 Paul Berger

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority is running out of funds for a controversial program to renovate 32 subway stations and will scale it back as a result.

MTA chairman Joe Lhota said Monday that most of the program’s $936 million budget has been used for the 19 stations completed or under way. Mr. Lhota said costs rose after contractors began work on stations and discovered “infrastructure rot” that broadened the scope of work.

Under the original plan, the renovations would have cost an average of $28 million per station. The current average cost for each station is $43 million.

“We live in a world of limited funding,” Mr. Lhota said. “We need to make decisions about how we use that funding.”

The MTA will have spent about $850 million for the renovations to 19 stations and the Richmond Valley station on the Staten Island Railway. That leaves 13 targeted subway stations without any funding. They will have to wait for the MTA’s next five-year spending plan, Mr. Lhota said, which starts in 2020.

The so-called enhanced-station initiative was championed by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when it launched in the summer of 2016. Mr. Cuomo’s office declined to comment.

© Mark Kauzlarich for The Wall Street Journal

His administration touted cleaner, brighter and easier-to-navigate stations with new lighting, digital signage, USB ports and artwork.

Some transit advocates as well as several MTA board members criticized the program as a poor use of scarce funds when the agency should be focused on improving subway service.

Critics said the MTA could better spend its money modernizing the subway’s signal system, which would reduce delays and allow trains to run faster and more frequently. They also said the MTA should focus on adding elevators. Currently, only one-quarter of the subway’s 472 stations are accessible to people with disabilities.

The MTA expects that about $90 million will be left over from the program, which will be transferred to projects that make stations more accessible, an MTA spokesman said.

Earlier this year, MTA board members representing Mayor Bill de Blasio voted against contracts to upgrade eight stations in the program at a cost of more than $200 million. But the measure passed the full board.

On Monday, Carl Weisbrod, a commissioner who represents New York City, said the program was “ill-conceived,” and that he is glad it has come to an end.

“I don’t know when the MTA management realized that the program had run out of money but it would’ve been helpful to have informed the board when this matter was under discussion,” he said.

Mr. Lhota said he was aware of the increased costs last year, but he chose not to mention it until now. “I didn’t think it was relevant to the debate,” he said.

At a board presentation in February, the MTA’s new head of the subway, Andy Byford, said the program was more than just cosmetic. He pointed to major repairs that were being carried out on platforms, station walls and stairways. He also cited degraded steelwork on the Astoria line, which carries the N and W trains in Queens.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, whose district includes the Astoria line, said his constituents aren’t pleased with the station-enhancement program because elevators weren’t included despite the MTA spending $200 million to upgrade four stations on an elevated line.

The MTA closes two stations at a time while renovations are carried out. Since the stations at 30th Avenue and 36th Avenue closed last fall, Mr. Gianaris said eight businesses have closed because of the loss of foot traffic. The stations are due to reopen this summer.

The renovations “have been a real problem for communities throughout New York,” Mr. Gianaris said, questioning why the program’s costs have increased.

“Were they purposefully underestimating the cost at the outset to downplay how expensive it would be?” he said. “Or has something happened in the last year that raises questions about how they budget and how they spend their money?”

Mr. Lhota said the need to expand the scope of work only became clear once renovations began and the need for extensive repairs became apparent. “Given the fact that the stations haven’t been closed in some time, this was going to be the only shot,” he said.

Write to Paul Berger at Paul.Berger@wsj.com

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