By Julie Shapiro and Josh Rogers
Nearly one year after the Metropolitan Transportation Authority announced it had run out of money to build the aboveground portion of the Fulton Transit Center, the agency still has made no decisions about the future.
“We have a couple of different options for what’s above ground,” Lee Sander, M.T.A. executive director, said last week. “The issue is really figuring out how we pay for it.”
He did not disclose any information on the alternatives under consideration. He said he was “highly confident” something will be built above street level, but he has made similar comments throughout the year and the M.T.A. had said they would have a new plan for the site by last February.
Sander spoke to community news reporters last Thursday, one day after the agency passed a “doomsday” budget calling for 23 percent fare hikes and severe service cuts next year if there is no help from Albany.
The M.T.A. displaced 140 businesses in 2006 to make way for a domed Fulton station that was to become a new Downtown landmark. But while the M.T.A. has made progress on the belowground portion of the station — beginning to untangle 12 subway lines and ease pedestrian connections — a pit remains at Fulton St. and Broadway with no plan for its future The M.T.A. has budgeted $1.198 billion for the project, 71 percent of which came from the federal government.
Sander would only say Thursday that the M.T.A. is not interested in topping the station with a commercial structure to raise revenue.
“At this point that’s not in our plans, and given the fact that we’re in the environmental planning process, I think I will leave my comments there,” he said. He was more forthcoming when asked about other projects throughout the city.
When pressed on the impact of the delays on the Downtown community — and the fact that many of the displaced businesses have closed — Sander acknowledged the M.T.A.’s actions are not always ideal.
“I don’t want to sound like we just drink the Kool-Aid at the M.T.A. and we’re not sensitive to the fact that some of the things we’re doing have had…an impact on the community,” he said. “We’re mindful of that.”
Sander said he did meet with one business owner in the area to talk about the project.
A week earlier, Michael Horodniceanu, M.T.A.’s president of capital construction, also promised the station would rise.
“It’s going to be similar to what you’ve seen,” he said of the design.
Asked if the design included the much-praised domed glass oculus, which the M.T.A. shrunk several times before saying it was too expensive, Horodniceanu replied, “We have not made a decision.”
Horodniceanu said the M.T.A. had time to finalize the plans, because work on the building cannot start until 2010, when much of the belowground construction is complete.
State Senator-elect Daniel Squadron reiterated the importance of the transit hub last week, saying, “Fulton should absolutely be done.”
Squadron said the Fulton Transit Center is a different type of capital project from the Second Ave. subway, which he also favors, because Fulton can be done quickly in conjunction with an economic development project.
Squadron added that all options to get the aboveground station built should be considered, including the commercial building Sander ruled out.
“When you’re talking about doing nothing, ruling anything out makes no sense,” he said in a telephone interview.
Downtown Alliance president Liz Berger, who first suggested the commercial top to the station, agreed with Squadron.
“Any and all options ought to be on the table,” she said.
Berger, who has spoken with Sander about Fulton, has been one of the most outspoken advocates for an architecturally distinctive transit center with much-needed retail space.
“It was supposed to open in December 2007,” Berger said. “That was a year ago…. This is what the community has been promised, it’s what Downtown deserves, and it’s got to happen now. We can’t wait any longer.”
The M.T.A. has made progress on another part of the Fulton Transit Center project, recently awarding the contract for the station’s foundation.
But the M.T.A. has not decided what to do with the historic Corbin Building, which sits adjacent to the station and is supposed to be preserved, but there is no money available now to do that. Kevin Ortiz, spokesperson for the M.T.A., said it was “way too early” to determine what the future use of the Corbin Building would be but the plans to preserve it have not changed. The building contained more than 40 office tenants before the M.T.A. used eminent domain to kick them out to build the transit hub, and those tenants have not been guaranteed the right to return.
The M.T.A. is hoping to get more money for the Corbin Building from the state.
Sander was asked several questions about the Second Ave. subway under construction on the Upper East Side, and every time he mentioned the full build plan to extend the line to Chinatown, the Seaport and the Financial District, he used some form of the word “hope.”
He said it would be more than 10 years before it is built and he offered no guarantees that it will ever happen. It’s the fourth and last phase of the project.
“That’s phase 1, 2, and 3 away,” explained Lois Tendler, vice president of community relations for N.Y.C. Transit, who joined Sander at the meeting.
Sander remains passionate about the new line but said if he has to make drastic cuts to the capital program, he would sooner cut mega-projects like Second Ave. and East Side Access, which will connect Long Island commuters to Grand Central Station, than cuts to the existing system.
“If you had to make a choice between those two, there is no choice — it is the core program,” he said.
Modernizing the 70-year-old signal system, which Sander said could increase capacity on individual subway lines by 20 to 30 percent, is also more important than the big projects.
“That is a higher priority than the megas…. We can only do so many Second Ave. subways,” he said.
During Thursday’s meeting, Sander said the public sees the M.T.A. as bloated and dysfunctional — a perception Sander thinks is unfair.
“We feel a bit like we’re a punching bag,” Sander said.
(Sander nearly had to dodge not a punch but a shoe thrown by an angry rider at a press conference last Wednesday. When he met with Downtown Express and other reporters Thursday morning, he jokingly asked if anyone was wearing shoes.)
Sander, who was appointed to run the agency by former Gov. Spitzer at the beginning of 2007, described his efforts to streamline the agency, including consolidating human resources and accounting departments and combining the city’s three private bus companies into one. He said he reduced back office costs by 40 percent, cutting staff from 620 to 380 people. At the same time, the M.T.A. has kept its costs roughly in sync with inflation, Sander said.
But the one cost that has skyrocketed is the M.T.A.’s debt service. The problem dates back to 1999, Sander said. That was the year Gov. George Pataki and the state Legislature refused to fund the M.T.A.’s 2000-’04 capital plan, telling the agency to borrow the money instead.
The state and city ultimately paid for only 2 percent of the $21.1 billion capital plan, forcing the M.T.A. to take on what Sander called a “mountain of debt” that grows by the year.
“That bill has come due,” Sander said.
The M.T.A. started out paying several hundred million dollars a year in debt service, but that figure will balloon to $2 billion by 2012, or roughly 20 percent of the operating budget.
The debt service is one reason the M.T.A. faces a shortfall of $1.2 billion in next year’s operating budget, which caused the M.T.A. to propose broad service cuts and a 23 percent fare increase to bridge that gap. The cuts include ceasing late night N train service in Lower Manhattan. The $1.2 billion shortfall is roughly the same amount that the agency will pay for debt service next year. So, Sander said, if the agency had not been forced by the state to take on so much debt, the current economic downturn would not be having such a big impact on the budget.
“Even with the reduction in real estate taxes, we would not be having the apocalyptic financial circumstances we are experiencing,” Sander said. “It would be tough,” he added, but it would not necessitate so many cuts and such a large fare increase.
Sander served on the Richard Ravitch commission, which is proposing bridge tolls, an 8 percent fare hike, and payroll taxes to close the operating budget and fund capital improvements in the future. Sander said drivers, commuters and employees should all share the burden to solve the problem.