The East Side Access project, highlighted by the NYT as particularly expensive, photographed in 2014. Photo: MTA
The East Side Access project, highlighted by the NYT as particularly expensive, photographed in 2014. Photo: MTA

“I don’t think it’s corrupt.” MTA board member Charles G. Moerdler told the New York Times for its most recent subway exposé, “But I think people like doing business with people they know, and so a few companies get all the work, and they can charge whatever they want.” Oh yeah. That’s definitely not corruption.


Anyone who rides the New York City subway system is usually made aware of its more in-your-face failures within a few rides. You see the rats, you smell the armpit of the person crammed next to you on your overpacked train and you pray for death while you are delayed for some indeterminate reason.

But there’s so much more to the subway’s failings. For that we have this piece from the New York Times under the title, “The Most Expensive Mile of Subway Track on Earth: How excessive staffing, little competition, generous contracts and archaic rules dramatically inflate capital costs for transit in New York.

The Times figured out that, for instance, some 200 extra people are working on the city’s most recent big project and it is entirely unclear what, if anything, they do.

It’s just one little example in a greater piece about stratospheric costs, “seven times the average elsewhere in the world” for new projects. It’s all to say that the MTA is spending a lot of money, it’s just not going to fixing its ruinously out-of-date infrastructure. New York City could have a good subway. New York City is spending enough to have a good subway system. But New York City doesn’t have a good subway system, because all of the money is going into what seems like an innumerable count of black holes.


Key problems include overstaffing:

There are “nippers” to watch material being moved around and “hog house tenders” to supervise the break room. Each crane must have an “oiler,” a relic of a time when they needed frequent lubrication. Standby electricians and plumbers are to be on hand at all times, as is at least one “master mechanic.” Generators and elevators must have their own operators, even though they are automatic. An extra person is required to be present for all concrete pumping, steam fitting, sheet metal work and other tasks.

In New York, “underground construction employs approximately four times the number of personnel as in similar jobs in Asia, Australia, or Europe,” according to an internal report by Arup, a consulting firm that worked on the Second Avenue subway and many similar projects around the world.


Hilariously bad bidding on jobs:

One of the most important contracts in recent years, for the construction of the Second Avenue tunnel, got just two bids. M.T.A. engineers had estimated the contract would cost $290 million, but both bids came in well above $300 million, and the authority did not have much leverage. Ultimately, it awarded the deal for about $350 million — 20 percent above its estimate.


Idiotic and expensive consultants:

Officials have added to the soft costs by struggling to coordinate between vendors, taking a long time to approve plans, insisting on extravagant station designs and changing their minds midway through projects. In 2010, they hired a team of three consultants to work full time on East Side Access “operational readiness” — getting the tunnel ready to open — even though contractors knew construction would not end for another decade.


And laughable excuses for failure:

In some ways, M.T.A. projects have been easier than work elsewhere. East Side Access uses an existing tunnel for nearly half its route. The hard rock under the city also is easy to blast through, and workers do not encounter ancient sites that need to be protected.

“They’re claiming the age of the city is to blame?” asked Andy Mitchell, the former head of Crossrail, a project to build 13 miles of subway under the center of London, a city built 2,000 years ago. “Really?”


Is any of this going to change anytime soon? Not if the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the MTA has anything to say about it.

Just read the full report and weep. It’s a long one, but if you’re going to read it on the subway, you’ll probably have time.

Raphael Orlove is features editor for Jalopnik.

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