Setting the 2016 Agenda: Transportation and Infrastructure

by Will Brunelle

Published by City & State on September 23, 2015

When it reconvenes in three months, the state Legislature will face several issues surrounding the state’s ailing transportation infrastructure, with no easy solutions in sight.

With New York City’s subways in dire need of repair and maintenance, and the commuter tunnels under the Hudson River deteriorating, the city has perhaps the most high-profile, and most costly, needs.

But upstate roads and bridges, according to upstate lawmakers, are in a similar state of disrepair. Funds need to be distributed evenly around the state, they argue, to ensure that upstate communities are not neglected.

The most prominent issue is undoubtedly the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s five-year capital plan. The plan still faces a significant shortfall, despite Cuomo’s announcement that the state would commit an additional $8.3 billion to help close the gap. Both Cuomo and MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast, a Cuomo appointee, have urged the city to contribute an additional $3.2 billion.

A scathing report released this month by the Citizens Budget Commission says that if it continues on its current schedule of upkeep and improvements, New York City’s subway system won’t be in reliably good repair until 2067. The report was underscored by a G train derailment a week later, caused by a deteriorating wall in a station.

Prendergast promptly blamed the derailment, and the subway system’s overall disrepair, on the city’s refusal to contribute more money to the MTA. He was joined in his finger-pointing by the head of the union representing transit workers.

The pressure being put on the city will be critical to Cuomo and other state lawmakers who, if the city doesn’t agree to offer more money, will have to find it somewhere else. Meanwhile, the $8.3 billion the state promised isn’t yet secure; it will first need to be approved by the Legislature during next year’s budget negotiations. The governor doesn’t anticipate that will pose much of a problem, however, given that downstate members make up a strong majority of both the Assembly and the Senate.

“When you look at the MTA region, that’s by far the bulk of the New York state Legislature in terms of members,” Cuomo said during a July appearance on “The Capitol Pressroom.” “But will the upstate people say, what about us? Yes, and we have a big, robust roads and bridges program which we had last year and we’re going to propose again next year and that will be addressing the need for upstate, and the MTA’s downstate.”

State Sen. Joseph Robach, who chairs the chamber’s Transportation Committee, told City & State that he’s curious where Cuomo intends to find over $8 billion, and that any budget negotiations are going to hinge on what funding stream Cuomo and Prendergast have found for the state’s extra contributions.

“Although a funding source for the MTA state funding has not been identified, we would want to make sure that it did not include tax increases and would push for an equitable highway and bridge plan,” Robach wrote in an email. “This of course would have to be considered with all the other components of the budget, which are currently unknown.”

Robach, who represents the Rochester region, said he expects any funding plans developed for the MTA’s downstate facilities to have parity with the Department of Transportation’s ability to maintain and improve its upstate services.

“The proposed MTA Capital Plan provides needed investments in the New York Metropolitan Region and economic benefits throughout the state,” Robach wrote. “I have always advocated for parity between a DOT Capital Plan and (an) MTA Capital Plan to achieve balance across the state.” He declined to describe exactly what a balanced pair of plans would look like, however, reiterating that it’s impossible to do so without knowing where the state’s extra contribution to the MTA is expected to come from.

State Sen. James Sanders Jr. of Queens, a member of the chamber’s Democratic minority, cautioned against rhetoric pitting upstate against downstate.

“Now some people have used mass transportation to be a synonym for New York City; that’s wrong in so many different ways,” Sanders said. “Of course, I would remind everyone that New York City is the cash cow for the state, and that we send more money to the state than we get back, so it would be wise for everybody to lower the temperature of their words.”

Addressing concerns of upstate infrastructure being neglected, Sanders said he expects the Legislature will take an even-handed approach to funding improvements and repairs statewide.

“Some roads and bridges that are used by a few people, relatively speaking, should be maintained because we are one state,” he said.

But another major infrastructure concern facing lawmakers is, again, critical primarily to downstate. The commuter rail tunnels running under the Hudson River are in need of replacement, an effort that Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said will cost $20 billion.

The governors gave that estimate in a letter sent to the federal government, asking for $10 billion in exchange for a promise that the states will find the other half.

Yet again, where New York’s share of that money would come from was not specified.

The New York Times reported last week that a White House spokesman responded to the letter, saying U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx would collaborate with both states to find a way to “best support progress on this project.” However, there was no mention of whether the federal government would contribute funds for the undertaking.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie of the Bronx promised in a late August interview with the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s editorial board that upstaters’ concerns will not be forgotten by the Legislature in the upcoming session, though he didn’t specifically comment on infrastructure or transportation needs.

Sanders, however, said the session will be “stormy” for several reasons, but primarily because of the issues – like the MTA capital plan and commuter tunnels – that legislators “have kicked down the road.”

“A wise person wouldn’t kick them anymore,” Sanders said.