Cuomo’s Executive Budget Offers Improvements, but Misses Some Opportunities

It will take some time to parse through the details of Governor Cuomo’s proposed 2013-2014 executive budget, but a quick look reveals some good news:

  • a modest boost to operating revenues for downstate transit
  • a one-year redistribution of the “Long Lines” tax across the state, and
  • a $300 million infusion of new State money for the NY Works program

While there are missed opportunities, there are openings here and there to advocate for a more progressive statewide transportation policy.

Support for Transit

For transit systems hit hard by Superstorm Sandy, the Governor has provided a modest boost in operating support. The MTA will receive over $4.2 billion, an increase of more than $358 million, or about 5 percent, from last year’s budget. Other downstate transit systems, like Nassau County’s NICE bus, will share a combined $23.5 million increase over last year. Unfortunately, funding for struggling upstate systems will be flat, at $173.5 million. The good news for non-MTA systems is that the budget proposes to continue the redistribution of the Transmission Tax (better known as the “Long Lines Tax”) according to population. If this redistribution is made permanent, it will add a second dedicated tax that non-MTA systems can rely upon.

And, keeping to his promise, Cuomo allocated $307 million in General Funds to the MTA to offset the cuts to the Payroll Mobility Tax that Albany orchestrated two years ago. The Governor also proposes to extend a key MTA business tax surcharge for five years.

One statement needing clarity is:

“The Budget will use surplus mass transportation operating assistance funds to pay for a portion of the debt service associated with previously issued MTA service contract bonds. (2013-14 Value: $20 million; 2014-15 Value: $0).”  

This could possibly mean that debt service that used to be covered by the State is now being put back on the MTA.

The budget also has some more details on how $30 billion in Sandy aid will be dispersed — which appears to finally be on its way.

Tappan Zee Bridge

As expected, instead of raising tolls on commercial trucks, $85 million in State funds will go to the Thruway Authority to pay the costs of the police that patrol the Thruway.

Safer Streets

Claiming that the state loses $58 million when people plea down their speeding tickets, the Governor has proposed legislation to reform the traffic adjudication process and restrict plea bargaining. There will also be a new minimum fine for those who are caught texting while driving. A gaping hole however, that has more to do with safety and saving lives than simply raising fines, is the proposed speed camera demonstration program for New York City, which unfortunately did not appear in the budget.

Pedestrian and Bicycling Infrastructure

Unlike the recent draft of NYSDOT’s Capital Plan (or the pre-draft plan), the budget actually mentions “pedestrian” and “bicycling” programs. Although advocates were hoping for a dedicated line that assured a certain amount of money would go to these life-saving, economy-building projects, there is still hope. Of the $300 million in new funding for the New York Works program, $100 million is designated “for all modes of transportation infrastructure” to help “encourage regional economic development and to help leverage private investment.” If language is included to make sure these funds are specifically used to strengthen downtowns (pedestrian, bicycle, equitable transit-oriented development come to mind), that would be a win. The last disbursement of NY Works money went almost completely toward road repaving and bridge replacements, so there is a good argument for this round of funding to flow toward pedestrian, bicycle and transit infrastructure.

The red flag with this $100 million, however, is that it will be awarded competitively through the 10 Regional Economic Development Councils, wrestling control from local Metropolitan Planning Organizations, which are authorized by the federal government to do comprehensive transportation planning and to determine the most priority transportation projects in their regions. With the last NY Works program, funds to local MPOs were conditioned on approval of the state compiled project list.

Transit-Oriented Development

While the budget makes no specific mention of linking housing and transportation, Cuomo does state that 2.9 million New York households are financially insecure because of high housing costs. It is well documented, however, that transportation accounts for the second largest line item in most household budgets. It is time that Albany consider the costs of both housing and transportation and adopt a policy of promoting development close to transit.

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