Where’s NYSDOT’s List of Projects?

We are days away from a final budget in Albany, and yet no one has seen the list of road, bridge and transit projects that NYSDOT will tackle next year, to be funded by the budget currently being negotiated. No one has seen the proposed five-year capital plan, either.

And by “no one,” of course, we mean: the public, the advocates, the legislators, the transportation staff. In other words, everyone outside of the “four men-in-a-room”, and perhaps their respective staff members. Back in January, both were promised to be imminently forthcoming. And this isn’t the first time lists like these haven’t been forthcoming.

Why would we want a list?

  1. Albany has a checkered past of slipping pet transportation projects in without a democratic process—Senator Smith being a prime example of a short-circuited process.
  2. Advocates, the public and legislators would like to have some say in the development of project lists to be built, an opportunity to make the case for why some projects should be funded before others.
  3. This project list impacts not just NYSDOT, but the MTA. Historically, negotiations on the MTA and NYSDOT five-year capital plans have been coupled in the interest of assuring “parity” between upstate and down. We’ve had months to review the MTA’s Capital Plan because they have a statutory requirement to submit it on a certain date; NYSDOT has no comparable requirement.
  4. And advocates in Albany have been told point blank: no NYSDOT capital plan on the table, no discussion of the MTA’s capital plan.

Why keep this list in the dark?
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It’s Not Always Sunny in Albany

Discussions on ethics and transparency have exploded over the last couple of weeks, just in time for Sunshine Week. We thought we’d provide this handy list of choice tid-bits, in case you’ve lost track:

The New York Assembly called the State Thruway Authority to task by requiring public disclosure of a detailed financial plan for […]

Amtrak Policy Reform Could Bring True High-Speed Rail to the Northeast Corridor

Amtrak got a bipartisan nod of approval in Washington last week in the form of the Passenger Rail Reform and Investment Act of 2015 (H.R. 749), which authorizes $7.2 billion in federal subsidies for Amtrak and other rail programs through 2019, including $1.7 billion a year over four years.

While it’s not the boost in funding needed to match ridership gains, it could be considered a win in this congress. The vote was 316 to 101—with all Democrats who voted being in favor, and the conservative contingent casting against. A last minute action alert from conservative groups—Heritage Action and Club for Growth—called, unsuccessfully, for a no vote, identifying this as a “key vote” against which legislators’ performance would be judged. Given that Democratic votes were needed for passage, even the usual attempts to privatize and defund the system were unsuccessful.

There were several bits of policy reform of note:

  • Local officials in the 19 states that contribute financially to Amtrak service would have “a seat at the table” on decisions relating to changes and budgets for service.
  • Amtrak would need to be more transparent with the financial information it provides to state and local governments.
  • There will be some “streamlining” of environmental and other regulations on construction projects.
  • Amtrak will need to address the operating losses for food service on trains.
  • A pilot program will be launched allowing pets on board, for a fee.
  • A requirement that Amtrak take “a hard look” at the access needs of wheelchair users, bicyclists and other non-motorized transportation.
  • Profit from the Northeast Corridor (NEC), which usually subsidizes unprofitable routes across the country, would be reinvested in the corridor.

This final bullet can’t be overlooked, as it could ultimately lead to faster service. A feasibility study must be completed in six months that will analyze the possibility of a new and better Northeast Corridor.

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Two New York Communities Recognized as National Leaders on Complete Streets

Two New York communities brought home the highest rankings in the nation for their efforts to make streets safer and more accessible. Just three years after passage of a statewide law on Complete Streets, Ogdensburg and Troy are being recognized by the National Complete Streets Coalition as the nation’s best.

The National Complete Streets Coalition today released The Best Complete Streets Policies of 2014, which reviews every policy passed in the United States in 2014 and scores each according to the ten elements of an ideal Complete Streets policy.

Troy, New York, known for its architecture, is now starting to build a reputation for its streets. | Source

Troy, a city known for its architecture, is now starting to build a reputation for its streets. | Source

Ogdensburg, located on the northern border of the state and home to 11,000 people, had the highest-scoring policy with 92.8 points out of 100. Troy, located just across the Hudson from Albany and home to 50,000 people, had the second-highest score with 91.2 points.

Josh Wilson, executive director of New York Bicycling Coalition (and former Ogdensburg resident) is proud of his former home. “What makes this policy particularly effective is that it allows for the establishment of a resident task force which will review all new public and private construction projects with an aim at incorporating improvements to pedestrian and bicycle access. Giving concerned citizens a voice in the project planning process is absolutely crucial.”

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As President Obama Goes Big on His Budget, a Serious Conversation about Transportation Funding Begins

The Tappan Zee Bridge features prominently on the cover of the FY2016 Federal Budget.  | Image:  budget.gov via Wall Street Journal

The Tappan Zee Bridge features prominently on the cover of the FY2016 Federal Budget. | Image: Wall Street Journal

President Obama introduced a budget this week which, unlike last time, actually proposes a transportation funding mechanism—albeit a one-shot infusion of cash, not a permanent fix to a structural funding dilemma. Although the President’s plan is not expected to go far, the momentum does finally appear to be gathering, on both sides of the aisle, for a serious discussion about transportation funding.

Obama’s $4 trillion budget includes a six-year, $478 billion transportation program ($176 billion more than MAP-21, and $76 billion more than the $302 billion, four-year Grow America proposal introduced last year). It is partially funded by a mandatory 14 percent tax on U.S. companies’ profits (an estimated $2 trillion) currently parked overseas, resulting in $238 billion in revenue.

In 2016, $94.7 billion (nearly double the current amount) would be invested in roads, bridges, transit and freight. Highlights include:

  • $51 billion in highway investment, up 25 percent
  • $18.2 billion in transit investment, up 70 percent
  • $1.25 billion for TIGER, up 250 percent
  • $1 billion for a multi-modal freight program
  • $10.2 million for the TOD planning grant program
  • Establishment of passenger rail ($4.7 billion) and multi-modal accounts ($1.25 billion) in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)
  • Establishment of passenger rail and multi-modal accounts in the Highway Trust Fund (HTF)
  • Renaming the Highway Trust Fund the “Transportation Trust Fund”
  • A separate line item for Bus Rapid Transit
  • Dedicated funding for “high-performance rail,” which would replace the concept of “high-speed rail”
  • A national infrastructure bank

On the same day of Obama’s budget release, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx discussed the administration’s 30-year transportation plan—promisingly titled “Beyond Traffic 2045”— a policy framework that is all about “giving people choices.”

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Transit Comes up (VERY) Short in Governor’s Budget

 (John Carl D'Annibale, Times Union)

(John Carl D’Annibale, Times Union)

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).

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February 3rd in Albany—Join Us

On Tuesday, February 3, New Yorkers for Active Transportation (NY4AT) will be teaming up with New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) for a lobby day in Albany to discuss pedestrian, bicycling and transit infrastructure. Join us!

In light of yesterday’s State of the State address, now is the time to let your Albany legislators know that sustainable transportation options are […]

Subtext of a Port Authority Veto: Money, Power and Control

What four different legislative bodies with 612 legislators from two states wanted was a little independent oversight and accountability. What Governors Cuomo and Christie delivered—in the lull between Christmas and New Years when the majority of their constituents were enjoying some well-deserved quiet time—was a veto and a “special report”, both with an ill-disguised subtext: “mine, […]

$1 Billion and Counting: New York’s Non-MTA Transit Capital Needs

NYPTA's New Report Identifies $1 billion in capital needs for non-MTA transit

NYPTA’s New Report Identifies $1 billion in capital needs for non-MTA transit

Yesterday, the New York Public Transit Association (NYPTA) released their report “Five Year Capital Program for Upstate and Downstate Transit” which outlines the critical capital investment needs for non-MTA urban transit systems across the state. While the MTA first issued a multi-year capital program more than 30 years ago, NYPTA’s report represents the first ever comprehensive attempt to develop a five-year capital plan for New York’s non-MTA systems.

And the need is substantial. There are more than 100 systems covering nearly every county in the state, and carrying over 550,000 passengers each and every day. Yet, the projected capital deficit is $577 million. Making matters worse, these system are using capital funds for operations, accelerating the wear and tear on facilities and equipment. The lack of capital investment and dedicated capital and operating funding streams over the years has led to outdated systems that break down, disrupt service and incur higher costs when transit providers attempt to regain a state of good repair. Unfortunately, existing revenues are projected to cover just 43 percent of these identified capital needs.

The report details $1 billion in upcoming infrastructure needs between 2015-2019, with over 80 percent of the identified need going solely to repair and replace existing core system assets. The remaining 20 percent is slated for expansions and upgrades, such as bus rapid transit, to accommodate record transit ridership—for example, the report notes that ridership is up seven percent in the Capital District.

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Reforming the Port Authority, Part I: Transparency

The next six to twelve months will tell us whether the Port Authority is taking transparency seriously. Many encouraging promises have been made, now they need to be kept. The Port has some work to do to increase fiscal transparency.

John Kaehny, Reinvent Albany

If there’s one good thing that came out of Bridgegate, it was the fact that the public spotlight illuminated the inner workings of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), and revealed the need for a little more “sunshine” to enable the public to keep watch.

Mobilizing the Region asked John Kaehny, Executive Director of Reinvent Albany, what was on his “transparency wish list” for the agency, and we got quite a hefty to-do list in response. One of Kaehny’s biggest wishes is for an improvement to the accessibility of public documents, including Freedom of Information Law requests. He strongly asserted that all documents must be made available online in a downloadable, machine-readable format — including proposed budgets, committee briefing packets, contracts and property transactions. Making these documents easily available would not only increase transparency, but would potentially reduce the number of incoming FOIL requests by making frequently FOIL’ed information easily available to interested parties.

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