Gov. Hochul’s Interborough Express plan faces old MTA dilemma

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By Dan Sears

This column originally appeared in On The Way, our transit newsletter covering everything you need to know about NYC transportation. Sign up to get the full version in your inbox every Thursday.

Gov. Kathy Hochul is getting a hard lesson on the MTA as she pushes her plan for a light rail Interborough Express between Bay Ridge, Brooklyn and Jackson Heights, Queens.

During an open house meeting on the project last week, the deputy chief of staff for the MTA’s construction department let slip a sobering reality:

“The MTA can’t in good conscience invest in new infrastructure without making sure that we have the funding in place to secure our existing system.”

MTA officials later tried to downplay the comment, saying the IBX remained a top priority of the agency.

But promising new train lines only to divert the money to maintenance is a tale as old as the MTA. The agency’s first chair, William Ronan, in 1968 promised he’d build 50 miles of new subways to make up for “30 years of do‐nothingness.” Ronan vowed to build the Second Avenue subway, new train connections in Queens and major extensions to Brooklyn’s subways along Nostrand and Utica avenues.

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Fewer than 15 of those miles were ever built. By the mid-1970s, the city’s financial crisis forced the MTA to redirect money for expansion projects to repairs. 

A half-century later, MTA officials are still warning that big expansion plans could suffer a similar fate. A report released by the agency last month laid out a laundry list of high-priority upgrades to protect the mass transit system from the effects of climate change

We got an inside look into one of the more pressing upgrades last week.

MTA workers are continuing to repair one of four tracks along Metro-North’s Hudson River line, which remains buried more than two weeks after a major mudslide during a rainstorm.

In one section, 80 feet of track were ripped right out of the ground.

Because the Hudson Line sits right next to the river, riders more commonly notice disruptions to service when the tracks flood. But last month’s damage reveals the line is threatened by climate change from both sides: Rising sea levels to the west and mudslides caused by heavy rainfall to the east. 

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The ambition of the IBX project and the risk facing the key commuter line raises a perennial question: Where does the MTA prioritize spending? Should it shore up the current system for future generations, or build new transit options like Hochul’s Interborough Express, which aims to address some of the city’s biggest transit deserts? The MTA says it can do both. But history suggests repairs will come before expansions.

Curious Commuter

Reader question: Will the $3.4 billion federal grant for the Second Avenue subway extension make it faster to build?

Clayton’s answer: Not necessarily! It only means the MTA has the go-ahead to start building. But the project — which aims to extend the Q up to 125th Street and Lexington Avenue — is expected to take more than seven years to complete. The MTA is currently seeking bids for work to relocate utilities along the route.

Want to submit a question? @Gothamist’s Instagram will give followers a chance to submit questions via Stories for upcoming newsletters on Monday afternoons.

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If you’re not on Instagram, email [email protected] or [email protected] with the subject line “Curious Commuter question.”

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