On Jan. 5, 2022, Governor Kathy Hochul announced her support for the multi-billion dollar Interborough Express. It would provide a new commuter rail, subway or bus rapid transit connection between Brooklyn and Queens. It would use portions of the LIRR Bay Ridge Brooklyn freight line. MTA Chairman Janno Lieber could only promise that the cost would not exceed $10 billion. Hochul instructed Lieber to immediately move the project forward by initiating the National Environmental Protect Act (NEPA) review.
This is one of the first steps necessary to quality for future Federal Transit Administration funding. Five months later, the MTA announced that they will be submitting a grant application to the United States Department of Transportation’s competitive discretionary National Infrastructure Project Assistance Program. Winners will not be selected until the fall. Based upon my previous work experience at FTA, this is the code word for what we internally referred to as the “Halloween” grant cycle. Watch when the announcement of selected winning projects will conveniently coincide with many governors, senators and Congressional members, who are friends with President Biden and U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg running for public office on the eve of Nov. 8 Election Day. One requirement under this program is that the recipient, in this case, the MTA, has sufficient adequate secure funding to construct, maintain, operate and cover any unforeseen cost increases. Did someone forget about the ongoing financial problems facing the MTA now and in future years?
If Hochul was serious about this project, why didn’t she include any funding within the new $220 billion state budget? If MTA Chairman Janno Lieber was serious, he could have either (1) reprogrammed some of the billion plus carried over from the $32 billion 2015-19 Five-Year Capital Plan not spent, (2) reprogram funding from the current $51 billion 2020-24 Five-Year Capital Plan, (3) submit a zero dollar grant amendment to the Federal Transit Administration to reprogram funding from funds still not spent under open active grants worth $12 billion or (4) added this project to the MTA’s FTA 2022 federal fiscal year program of projects worth $1.5 billion. Any member of the New York Congressional delegation could have earmarked funding under the FTA’s recent appropriation and authorization bills signed into law by President Biden.
Any member of the State Senate or State Assembly could have earmarked funding for this project out of either State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins or State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie’s pots of discretionary funding contained within the $220 billion Albany budget. Each “Pot of Gold” is worth several hundred million. Neither Mayor Eric Adams or the New York City Council have proposed including funding for this project within the proposed new $99 billion municipal budget. Neither Brooklyn Borough President Antonio Reynosa nor Queens Borough President Donovan Richards has proposed using a portion of their respective discretionary pots of funding. Since Hochul, Lieber, Adams and others have no skin in the game to date, you have to wonder how serious they really are in advancing this project. What happens if the U.S. DOT decides not to select this project? Don’t be surprised if the next governor and MTA Chairman places this project in the back burner.
Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer, who previously worked for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for the MTA, NYC Transit, Long Island Rail Road, Metro North Rail Road, MTA Bus along with 30 other transit agencies in NY & NJ.