There is a bumper crop of dollars up for grabs this year in Albany thanks to the state’s sizable bank settlement funds, and after many voices chiming in that our crumbling infrastructure is the fiscally responsible investment for that money, Wednesday was Governor Cuomo’s turn to speak his mind. Unfortunately, the Governor plans to invest only a paltry portion of that on transit.
As the state faces a mind-boggling $33 billion needed for statewide transit systems, it is now up to advocates and legislators to make sure our dollars are spent in a fiscally responsible and sustainable manner. Here’s a quick summary of what we’ve gleaned so far from the transit budget he has proposed:
The Nuts and Bolts of Transit
Ahead of the release of the 2015-16 New York State Executive Budget, statewide transit systems identified $33 billion in capital needs over the next five years ($32 billion for the MTA, $1 billion for suburban and upstate transit). Roughly half of that would be funded from a combination of fares, debt, and other revenue sources; transit systems are dependent on the state budget to fill the gap.
The Executive Budget proposes using just $750 million from the settlement funds for MTA capital needs ($150 million a year), which leaves a gaping $14.45 billion ($2.89 billion annually) gap for the MTA. Additionally, in an unprecedented and troubling move, the Governor proposes to take $121.5 million of transit revenues from the Metropolitan Mass Transportation Operating Assistance program (MMTOA) that are dedicated to downstate operating needs, and move it to a new capital account, while simultaneously increasing operating funds for the MTA with $37 million from general funds.
The final sleight of hand in this shell game is another diversion of dedicated funds to pay off state debt, this time $20 million from MMTOA, and a promise to repeat the diversions through 2019. The budget does continue to fulfill the Governor’s promise to make the MTA “whole” with a $309.2 million transfer from the General Fund, a promise made after the 2011 budget deal that had slashed MTA revenues derived from the Payroll Mobility Tax.
For non-MTA transit systems, the outlook is equally bleak. The Executive Budget provides $5 million from the NY Works program for capital needs, leaving suburban and upstate systems with a $95 million annual gap in their five-year capital plans. Operating funds for upstate transit are proposed to be flat—not even a bump for inflation—at a time that upstate ridership continues to climb (despite falling gas prices).
In fact, the Governor’s budget documents fail to acknowledge the five-year statewide capital plans that have been put on the table. This is a particularly troubling omission given that building contracts for long-term capital investments can’t be signed if there’s any uncertainty about the ability to pay the terms of those contracts in the future. Without a financial commitment from the state to fund transit on a long-term basis, construction projects (and jobs) across New York will be thrown into disarray.
And The Ribbon-Cutting Opportunities…
So, while it looks like the Governor is proposing that the nuts and bolts of our transit systems should rust some more, there are some ribbon-cutting opportunities on the Governor’s agenda:
- $250 million for four new Metro-North stations in the Bronx
- $150 million for Transit Oriented Development/parking on Long Island and in Westchester County
- $450 million for an “Air-train” to LaGuardia Airport
Expanded capacity for Metro-North is big news, but the progress to jumpstart development opportunities around these proposed stations is undermined by the fact that the Governor’s definition of “Transit Oriented Development” in the suburbs is limited to vertical parking only. While the Governor does acknowledge that vertical parking structures free-up land for mixed-use development, he fails to note the indisputable fact that providing parking encourages driving, thus negating the value of nearby transit. Governor Cuomo doesn’t need to look far to find an example of a state that is making real investments in TOD. In 2014, Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy designated $15 million to kick-start mixed-use development along new commuter rail and bus rapid transit corridors, and in 2011, launched a $5 million planning grant program for TOD near rail stations.
The Governor’s “Air Train” idea to LaGuardia has already been panned; Select Bus Service is a successful (and cheaper) route to the airport. The $450 million saved by putting the kibosh on that concept would be well spent funding statewide transit capital needs.
Bus rapid transit along the Tappan Zee/I-287 corridor is mentioned in the policy book, but alas, as far as we can tell, no state dollars are committed to this in the Executive Budget; federal dollars are being sought.