OP-ED: Sen. Schumer''s dream of Utica Avenue Subway extension three years later

Feb. 16, 2024
Don't be surprised if another 100 years passes before any commuter can board the NYC Transit Utica Avenue subway.

In February 2021 at an Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce function, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) announced his support for the Brooklyn Utica Avenue subway extension. He promised to deliver federal funding at a later date to pay for it.  Three years have come and gone with no check arriving.

Generations have promised this project for more than 100 years!  All we have to show for it is another study, this time the ongoing $5 million Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) Utica Avenue Transit Improvements study. No draft or final report has ever been released and made public.  

According to the MTA's 2025 - 2044 Twenty Years Capital Needs Assessment released in October 2023, the MTA is considering three alternatives for transportation improvements along the Utica Avenue Brooklyn corridor. The estimated costs at the time the report was released were $4.82 billion for the full build subway extension to Kings Plaza, $1.73 billion for construction as far as Church Avenue supplemented with bus rapid transit (BRT) to Kings Plaza or $360 million for BRT along the entire length of Utica Avenue to Kings Plaza. 

There was nothing in New York Gov. Kathy Hochul's State of the State address, or the release of her proposed Fiscal Year 2025 budget, New York City Mayor Eric Adams State of the City address or MTA Chairman Janno Lieber's proposed Federal Transit Administration's 2024 Program of Projects to include any funding for advancement of the Utica Avenue subway.  

I'm all in favor of cost effective, well planned system expansion projects, providing we first bring our existing transit assets up to a state of good repair, but we need to stop wasting millions on transportation feasibility studies for future system expansion projects that will never happen in our lifetime.

Do not initiate any new expansion projects until each MTA operating agency, including New York City (NYC) Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, MTA bus, Long Island and Metro-North Rail Roads have reached a state of good repair. Categories for each agency include:

  • Existing bus, subway and commuter rail fleet
  • Stations and elevators to meet Americans with Disabilities Act requirements
  • Escalators
  • Track, including switches, signals and interlockings
  • Communications
  • Line structures, including painting, protective netting on elevated structures and bridges
  • Line equipment, including tunnel lighting, pump rooms and emergency exits
  • Traction power
  • Power substations
  • Maintenance shops
  • Yards
  •  Employee facilities
  •  Supervisory vehicles than fund any system expansion projects

All MTA 125 Long Island Rail Road, 125 Metro-North Rail Road, 472 NYC Transit, and 21 Staten Island Railway stations should be ADA accessible. Ensure that maintenance programs for all operating agencies assets are fully funded and completed on time so that riders have safe, reliable and on time service.

The MTA $51 billion 2020 - 2024 Five Year Capital Plan (whose program is still $15 billon short as the assumption of congestion toll revenue starting in 2020 may not start until June 2024 or after 90 percent of the program period will have come and gone) will just be a down payment to accomplish reaching a state of good repair. It will take the MTA 35 more years before each operating agency comes close to reaching 100 percent state of good repair for each of these key categories. No elected official, including Sen. Schumer, Gov. Hochul, MTA Chairman Lieber or any MTA operating agency president will tell you what their order of priority is for various multi- billion dollar expansion projects. 

The Utica Avenue subway extension project has never been officially admitted into the Federal Transit Administration's (FTA) Capital Investment Grants (CIG) New Starts or Core Capacity national competitive discretionary capital funding program. The MTA would be competing against itself when looking for funding to pay for the $5 billion Utica Avenue subway extension, along with both the $7.5 billion Second Avenue Subway West 125th Street Harlem extension and $5.5 billion Brooklyn Queens Light Rail Connector out of the same federal funding sources during similar time frames.

Don't forget the Empire State Development Corporation, Gateway Development Commission, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), New Jersey Transit, NYC Department of Transportation and other MTA transportation agencies are also counting on the same FTA grant programs to help provide billions toward the $16 billion Phase One and full build $39 billion Hudson River Gateway Tunnel, $10 billion PANYNJ Bus Terminal, $10 billion Cross Harbor Freight Tunnel (in this case, the Federal Highway Administration), $8 billion Penn Station Improvements, $1.9 billion West Shore and $1.5 billion North Shore Bus Staten Island Rapid Transit projects, along with many more in the MTA area and across the nation.  

Future completion of the ongoing planning study is only the first step. Additional funding to advance the project is not included in the MTA current five year capital plan. The next MTA 2025 - 2029 Five Year Capital Program Plan is due to be released and adopted within 11 months. We will learn on or before Jan. 1, 2025 if the MTA is serious about advancing the Utica Avenue subway.

Funding would have to be programed in the next five years to pay for a formal National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) review (necessary to preserve eligibility for future federal funding) along with preliminary plus final design and engineering before any federal construction funding could be applied for and obtained.   

It will also take several more years before gaining admission to the FTA's CIG New Starts/Core Capacity program. There needs to be complete environmental reviews, design and engineering, business relocation, land acquisition, agreements with NYC and owners of underground utilities, including water, sewer, gas, electric, steam, cable and telecommunications before being ready to commence construction years later.

Don't be surprised if another 100 years passes before any commuter can board the NYC Transit Utica Avenue subway.

About the Author

Larry Penner

Larry Penner is a transportation advocate, historian and writer who previously served as a former director for the Federal Transit Administration Region 2 New York Office of Operations and Program Management. This included the development, review, approval and oversight for billions in capital projects and programs for New Jersey Transit, New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, NYC Transit bus, subway and Staten Island Railway, Long Island and Metro North railroads, MTA Bus, NYCDOT Staten Island Ferry along with 30 other transit agencies in New York and New Jersey.