I-Team: Expensive Experts? MTA Hires $300 Million Consultants But Opts for Free L Train Advice - NBC New York
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I-Team: Expensive Experts? MTA Hires $300 Million Consultants But Opts for Free L Train Advice

Just because the MTA is paying big bucks for expert advice doesn’t mean the transit agency is taking it

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    NEWSLETTERS

    MTA Hires $300M Consultants But Opts for Free L Train Advice

    Two consultants who played key roles in planning for the L train tunnel shutdown have scored hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative MTA contracts. The I-Team's Chris Glorioso reports. (Published Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019)

    What to Know

    • L train consultants have scored hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative MTA contracts for their expert advice on the repair plan

    • Just because the MTA is paying big bucks for expert advice doesn’t mean the transit agency is taking that advice, though

    • Ultimately, Gov. Cuomo enlisted pro bono advice from an academic expert team and the MTA opted to keep the tunnel open during construction

    Two consultants who played key roles in planning for the L train tunnel shutdown have scored hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative MTA contracts, an I-Team investigation has found. 

    But just because the MTA is paying big bucks for expert advice doesn’t mean the transit agency is taking it. 

    For the past two years, WSP and Jacobs Engineering, a pair of civil engineering giants, have counseled the MTA to embark on a 15-month closure of the tunnel that connects Manhattan and Brooklyn on the L subway line. According to a "Final Constructability Review" authored by Jacobs in 2016, "full tunnel closure" was "the preferred approach" to repair tunnel infrastructure damaged by Sandy. 

    Despite that unambiguous endorsement of closing the tunnel, earlier this month the MTA and its consultants did an about-face. After Gov. Cuomo enlisted pro bono advice from a team of academic experts who suggested a new tunnel design could avert a crippling closure for hundreds of thousands of commuters, the MTA opted to keep the tunnel open during construction. 

    The sudden change in strategy -- based on free advice from a team of academics -- has subway riders and officials questioning the value of the paid consultants. 

    "They didn’t do consulting very well if the Governor was able to come up with a different plan," said L train commuter Roxann Murphy.

    "We should have been hearing this from people who we pay," said Acting Chairman of the MTA Board Fernando Ferrer.

    David Jones, a board member appointed by Mayor de Blasio, said the reversal of course could threaten the MTA's credibility at a time when transit supporters are asking taxpayers for vast new revenue streams.

    "With such a dramatic change from the original materials we were given, it does throw us into disarray," Jones said.

    "Anything that begins to undermine the credibility of the institution is dangerous."

    Neal Zuckerman, an MTA board member who works as a business consultant himself, questioned how the transit agency should interpret recommendations from future paid consultants in the wake of the L train situation. 

    "I don’t know the answer, but I know that I have a trust problem now and I don’t know what to believe," Zuckerman said. 

    It’s not clear how much WSP and Jacobs have been paid for their consulting work on the L train project because the MTA won’t discuss their contracts. And the agency declined to let the I-Team review the contracts. 

    According to data recorded by the New York State Comptroller’s Office, WSP has inked at least four contracts with the MTA worth about $173 million since 2015. 

    The same comptroller data shows Jacobs inked another four MTA contracts worth almost $130 million in the same time period. 

    The I-Team sought comment from both consultants. 

    Jacobs referred all questions to the MTA. WSP has yet to respond to the I-Team, but at an emergency board meeting this week, the consulting firm suggested its work remains valuable because it helped the governor's pro bono experts come up with their plan to keep the L train tunnel open. 

    "We have worked tirelessly with them, providing them with piles of data and reports that have been prepared over the past years," said Jerry Jannetti, WSP's senior vice president. 

    The MTA defended both WSP and Jacbos, characterizing their work as "invaluable" and providing the "foundation of the new plan" to keep the tunnel open. An agency spokesman also pointed out that much of the consultant work had to do with station upgrades and capacity improvements that had nothing to do with whether or not the tunnel would remain closed during construction. 

    Payroll data compiled by the Empire Center for Public Policy shows the MTA employs 173 civil engineers, 107 project managers and 73 architects. The MTA declined to say how involved those staff employees have been in the L train project or whether those staff members might be able to accomplish much of the strategy, design and planning work that private consultants typically do on large scale infrastructure projects. 

    Despite criticism of the MTA’s consultants, the transit agency seems to be doubling down on the L train project, continuing its partnership with WSP and Jacobs and even looking to hire a third consultant to independently review the governor’s new construction plan. In short, the MTA will now have three separate paid consultants working to review and execute a plan devised using free advice from academics.

    Sine Bayar, a public school math teacher who commutes on the L train, said the MTA's consulting bills don't add up.

    "The MTA’s wisdom has always been questionable to riders because we keep paying more and we never see any kind of improvements," Bayar said. "This is just another drop in the bucket in terms of how poorly they seem to be managing their money."

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