Before leaving Albany last week, the New York State Senate unanimously passed S.7608-A, a bill which would require the New York State Department of Transportation to be more transparent and accountable to the public about where they are going to spend our tax dollars, and when. Despite having 54 co-sponsors, the Assembly failed to pass a matching bill, so unfortunately, we’ll have to wait at least another year before some light is shed on NYSDOT’s blackbox capital planning process.
Transparency is not an esoteric issue. Here’s one real world example of how decisions made behind closed doors at NYSDOT’s central office in Albany can have an impact on a community’s future:
When I was a town board member in the Hudson Valley, I became the project manager for what is called a “locally-administered federal-aid project.” Basically, my town got a federal grant to put sidewalks on our main street, which, like in many communities, is a state highway. On top of the usual herding of cats required for any action in local politics, these federal-aid projects are notoriously frustrating due to the abundance of paperwork and bureaucratic details that often border on the absurd, especially for small projects. But we wanted sidewalks, so we pushed ahead.
After at least three years of grant-writing, community visioning sessions, and endless engineering (which resulted in a binder 3 inches deep), we were almost ready to redesign our main street with sidewalks, new drainage and a minor geometric change to a dangerous S-curve in the center of town.
But then we got word that NYSDOT was going to do a “mill & fill” on the road—in just two months—and because of the timing, they were not going to be able to accommodate our redesign plan. This mill & fill was on the publicly-available State Transportation Improvement Plan, so we knew it was coming, but it wasn’t scheduled to be done for three years, long after the sidewalks would have been completed.
The result? A decision made in Albany to put our road on that year’s “list of projects” wasn’t communicated to the regional DOT office nor to the local MPO until the project was about to begin. So back to the drawing board we went. After more money, more time, and more paperwork, we did finally get sidewalks, but the final design wasn’t what the community had envisioned.
According to NYSDOT, the lack of a publicly-available list of projects or a five-year capital plan for the $27 billion approved in this year’s budget has not impeded the letting of projects. But as this story shows, that’s a low, and frankly unacceptable, bar for coordinating plans between different levels of government.
Do you have a story that illustrates why we need better transparency and communication from NYSDOT’s central office? Tell me about it.