In the weeks leading up to Governor Cuomo’s State of the State Address and release of his capital budget, he announced a variety of transportation investments, including a commitment to fully fund the $26 billion MTA Capital Plan. Almost immediately after, elected officials started calling for upstate parity in funding for upstate road and bridge projects. What we’ve since learned, however, is that upstate parity would not likely include the kind of detailed spending disclosures that are required of the MTA.
At a hearing on the governor’s proposed budget last week, New York State Department of Transportation Commissioner Matthew Driscoll told lawmakers that the list of projects his department will work on will be made available to legislators and the public at the very end of the budget season. This means legislators will have to decide whether to approve an expenditure of billions of dollars without knowing what projects are on the list.
Compare that to the MTA’s budget process, which legally requires the authority make public a detailed financial plan every year, as well as a five-year capital plan. MTA also routinely updates the capital plan every year when a new financial plan is released.
If transparency for the sake of transparency isn’t enough, consider the potential for cost savings. According to a recent Transportation for America report, when the Tennessee Department of Transportation laid out its list of projects before the non-profit group Smart Growth America, they were able to trim their costs quite a bit:
In 2012, Tennessee DOT, working with Smart Growth America, found that many transportation projects in its program could be redesigned to achieve 80-90 percent of benefits for as little as one-tenth of the initial proposed cost. After reviewing just the first five projects, TDOT found a cost savings of over $171 million through right-sizing the scope of work.
Even though the governor is constitutionally required to provide “a complete plan of expenditures proposed… together with an explanation of the basis of such estimates”as part of his budget, NYSDOT has not been held to this standard. For last year’s budget, there was no deadline, no explanation and no list of projects. And now, based on the commissioner’s testimony, until the very end of this budget season, no one outside of NYSDOT will know if and how to justify spending all these billions of dollars upstate.
If lawmakers want financial parity between the MTA and upstate New York transportation spending, both regions should be held to the same standards of accountability. If state taxpayers are being asked to spend billions of dollars, they are entitled to an explanation of how and why those funds will be spent. It’s not an unreasonable ask; it’s fiscal discipline and basic good government practice. The MTA already does it. It’s time for NYSDOT to follow suit.