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 […]

New York 2014: Looking Back on the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

vz & cb vAfter a solid finale in 2013 from the Bloomberg/Sadik-Kahn administration, it was unclear how progress on safer streets in New York City would fare. Right out of the gate, Mayor Bill de Blasio dispelled doubts with bold moves for a “Vision Zero,” and the positive culture change on roads appeared to spill over to statewide efforts. Advocates were able to secure more money for pedestrian and bicycling infrastructure across the state, and several new cities were able to add traffic enforcement camera programs to their toolbox. Alas, sadly, there were setbacks as well.

But setbacks aside, overall it was a good year for advocates and their issues. Casinos and fracking were put in their rightful places, a solid plan for transit for the New NY Bridge was released with a $20 million commitment from the governor, and on the horizon, more and more voices are calling for the $5 billion bank windfall to flow towards transportation infrastructure.

Perhaps the biggest loser of 2014 was the public. Over and over, they were shut out of the decision-making process on how their tax dollars are being spent—especially with regard to the Port Authority and the New NY Bridge. The dark clouds of infrastructure funding and spending loom large in 2015, with massive deferred maintenance and unfunded capital programs, leaving everyone nervous about what’s to come.

The Good

Cities Get Bold About Street Safety — The first year of New York City’s Vision Zero program was a bit rocky at times, but overall an enormous achievement for a city where a growing population puts increasing pressure on limited shared space. The City Council passed an unprecedented number of streets safety bills, lowered the speed limit to 25 miles per hour, and implemented a speed camera program. But this energy was not solely limited to the City. The number of statewide red light camera programs grew significantly, and Albany’s program commits all excess revenue to a Traffic Safety Fund for the city. Suffolk County legislators approved dedicated funding for implementing the county’s landmark Complete Streets policy.

Mass transit plan for new Tappan Zee Bridge proposed — After a year of meetings, the Tappan Zee Bridge Mass Transit Task Force proposed seven new bus routes in a new branded, modern, efficient bus system serving Rockland and Westchester Counties. The state wisely applied for (though unfortunately didn’t receive) TIGER funds to implement the Task Force recommendations for transit along the I-287 corridor.

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A To-Do List for NYSTA’s New Leadership

State Budget Director Bob Megna, Photo: Times Union | Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney, Photo: ongov.net

In the wake of resignations of the Chairman, Executive Director and Chief Financial Officer of the New York State Thruway Authority, Governor Cuomo has announced his appointment of state budget director Robert Megna as acting Executive Director and Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney as Board […]

ABO Report Validates Transparency Concerns Regarding EFC Loan to Thruway Authority

ABO reportWith the recent release of the New York State Thruway Authority’s proposed budget, which includes a funding deficit of $305 million and $922 million in borrowing for the Tappan Zee replacement project, this is as good a time as any to revisit last month’s report detailing concerns about the approval of the Clean Water Funds loan to the Thruway Authority.

Public authorities like the New York State Thruway Authority or the Metropolitan Transportation Authority should be familiar to regular MTR readers, but readers may be surprised to know that there are 45 state public authorities, not to mention the even more numerous local public authorities, industrial development agencies and local development corporations. As Assemblyman Richard Brodsky said in 2009, “The lives of New Yorkers are impacted by the operations of state authorities to an infinitely greater extent than they are by the departments of state government”yet little is known about what they do or how they operate. Brodsky made that statement in support of legislation he sponsored that year that instituted a new fiduciary duty for authority board members and also created the Authorities Budget Office (ABO).

One of the many authorities, is the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) which, with the Department of Environmental Conservation, jointly administers the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, a fund that provides low-interest rate financing to municipalities to construct water quality protection projects such as sewers and wastewater treatment facilities. Although those purposes have no relation to bridge construction, on June 16, Governor Cuomo announced the EFC had decided to make $511.45 million in “low-cost” loans to the Thruway Authority for the New NY Bridge project. The problem with this announcement is that the EFC Board had not yet acted on the loans, but rather met ten days later, officially voting on the $511 million loans on June 26. But this official decision was ten days after the Governor’s announcement, creating a timing problem for the Board’s decision.

This problem, as well as other red flags, led several organizations, including Tri-State, to request an ABO investigation of the loan process. The results of the investigation were released last week, in which the ABO found:

  • Instances where the EFC Board’s actions did not meet the standards required by the state’s fiduciary duty law;
  • The EFC Board did not comply with Open Meetings Law requirements; of particular concern was the Board’s unwarranted use of executive sessions under Section 105 of that law; and
  • The EFC Board failed to ensure that the EFC complied with 40 CFR 35.3150 when it did not question why the project was added to the Intended Use Plan (IUP) on June 11, 2014 and why the public was denied a comment period.

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Wednesday Winners (& Losers)

A weekly roundup of good deeds, missteps, heroic feats and epic failures in the tri-state region and beyond.

New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg | Photo: johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu

New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg | Photo: johnjay.jjay.cuny.edu

WINNERS

New Jersey State Senator Loretta Weinberg — The Senator solidified her role as champion for New Jersey bus riders by calling for equal investment in and improved conditions at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at today’s Port Authority budget hearing. She is also holding a second commuter feedback meeting this Thursday.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka — The mayor has joined other leaders in calling for the continuation of the state’s red light camera program.

New York State Senator Jeff Klein — The Senator wants to see part of the state’s windfall bank settlement money used to create a new program called Empire Public Works, dedicated to upgrading the state’s infrastructure, rather than seeing the funds go to a one-shot project.

Camden, NJ — The city recently approved six new major development projects, including Subaru’s new corporate headquarters, “leading to the creation, retention or relocation of some 2,000 jobs.”

Village of Mamaroneck, NY  After completing a zoning study and public engagement process partially funded by Tri-State’s Transit-Centered Development Grant Program, the Village has approved a transit-oriented development rezoning that promotes green building codes, green infrastructure, and green roofs in the TOD district.

PATH riders — Weekend service connecting Exchange Place and the World Trade Center is finally set to resume next week.

Mark Fenton — The public health, planning and transportation expert and Tufts University adjunct professor engaged New Haven residents in a walking tour and planning workshop for the Route 34 development corridor.

Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo — The mayor is banning cars in central Paris neighborhoods.

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Pick Your Number: NYS Thruway’s Milstein Inflates Savings from Controversial Loan by 350%

Photo: Crain's New York

New York State Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein | Photo: Crain’s New York

On Wednesday, despite widespread objection from advocacy groupseditorial boardslegislators and the regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the New York State Thruway Authority (NYSTA) unanimously voted in favor of a $256 million loan from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund to help finance New NY Bridge projects.

During the board meeting,  NYSTA chairman Howard Milstein stated that the savings on this loan will be substantially higher than what was claimed leading up to the July 16 Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) meeting: “By saving us $35 million in financing costs, the loan will be helping us to keep future tolls as low as possible,” said Howard Milstein, the authority’s chairman.

In a document released by the Thruway Authority after the PACB vote, savings on the full $511 million loan are stated to be $17 million. Accordingly, on the no-interest $256 million loan approved yesterday, savings would be $10 million. The 350 percent inflation of savings that Milstein is claiming is inexplicable.

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$256 Million Raid of Clean Water Funds Could Save Drivers as Little as 8 Cents a Toll…but at What Cost?

tzb-construction

Bridge construction on the Tappan Zee. | Photo: Nyack News & Views

A couple of weeks ago, New York State Thruway Authority Chairman Howard Milstein was asked how high the tolls will go on the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The Chairman replied, “Do the math, and you’ll find out that it’s not going to be a high number.”

But doing the math is pretty much impossible when basic numbers about how the bridge will be funded are kept from the public and when requests for information are met with a sea of black ink that blocks out all relevant information.

Also, what is perceived to be a “high number” varies from person to person. Comments made by New York State officials have hinted that future tolls will be in the range of $10 to $14; other estimates have been higher. Conspicuously absent from this discussion is an estimated toll savings from the controversial Clean Water State Revolving Fund loan to the Thruway Authority.

Governor Cuomo’s June 16 press release rationalized the raid on clean water funds as a way to “help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.” When the public and officials questioned the loan, the administration fired back that those who oppose the loans “must be in favor of higher tolls on the new bridge,” though no mention was made of how much these loans will reduce the tolls. But a rough analysis by TSTC of documents released after the New York State Public Authorities Control Board approved the loan on July 16, shows that the toll reduction could be as little as 8 cents per toll. Put another way, an eight cents reduction would represent a 0.057 percent reduction on a hypothetical $14 toll. Even when calculated over a period of five years—the life of the CWSRF loan—is this reduction worth the potential health risks and reduced water quality resulting from a raid of funds used to protect and maintain water quality throughout the state?

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Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Details Finally Released to the Public

Tappan Zee Bridge Project TIFIA-Eligible Costs, Sources and Uses of Funds, as provided to TSTC on July 17, 2014 by the Federal Highway Administration in response to appeal of Tappan Zee Bridge Financial Plan Freedom of Information Act request.

Controversial Clean Water Loan Proceeds, in the Dark

“Is this any way to execute a major infrastructure project?”

So concludes today’s editorial from the Syracuse Post, hometown paper to State Senator John DeFrancisco, one of three sitting members on the Public Authorities Control Board (PACB) who, yesterday, rubber-stamped a raid of clean water funds to pay for the New New York Bridge construction projects.

Only a few weeks ago, DeFrancisco offered fighting words that provided hope to the advocacy community that has been shut out of the decision-making process on this controversial loan. In an interview with Capital Tonight’s Liz Benjamin, the Senator stated: “I have no compunction at all about voting ‘no’ if it’s not the proper use of money or there’s not a full financing plan, because the people should know how they’re paying for this thing.” And yet, the PACB—including Senator DeFrancisco—unanimously approved the first installment of $511 million in low-interest loans from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund, despite the fact that a full financing plan was not provided either to the PACB or the public.

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Criticism of Tappan Zee EFC Loan Piling Up

A pivotal moment in the three-step approval process for the Environmental Facilities Corporation (EFC) loan to fund the Tappan Zee Bridge project will happen tomorrow when the Public Authorities Control Board will take up discussion of the loan. Unanimous approval from the board is required for the loan to move forward to its next and final vote by the NYS Thruway Authority Board. In the wake of the EFC Board’s unanimous vote of approval, and in anticipation of tomorrow’s vote, the media has been nearly overwhelmed by criticism of the many facets of the controversial loan:

FINANCIAL TRANSPARENCY

Conclusively, as a matter of both law and public policy, I cannot support this proposal and, in fact believe that it should be withdrawn or left to fail on its merits, or lack thereof. Furthermore, as a member of the Public Authorities Control Board, I feel duty-bound by Section 51(3) of the Public Authorities Law to advocate against the passage of this proposal because it fails the necessary statutory test by being totally without “commitments of funds sufficient to finance the acquisition and construction of such project.”
- Bill Perkins, New York State Senator

From Day One we’ve been waiting for a complete financing plan that would include the all-important toll structure. Even after the feds came through with a $1.5 billion loan that required the filing of a financial plan, we still don’t know squat. Every attempt to FOIL the information has been denied by both the feds and the state, for no good reason.
-
Fred LeBrun, Albany Times Union

In a two-page letter, the feds denied Juva-Brown’s [FOIL] request, saying the Thruway Authority had advised them to do so. The U.S. Department of Transportation said Cuomo’s financial plan — the basis for a $1.6 billion loan request — was “hypothetical,” “misleading” and “inaccurate.”  DOT spokeswoman Nancy Singer didn’t quite answer how that could be. “New York met the requirements” for the loan, she said.
- Andrea Bernstein, Senior Editor for Politics & Policy, WNYC

When there was a discussion about the Tappan Zee Bridge, I tried to get the executive director of the Thruway Authority to tell me how they were financing the bridge and there were no answers. They were going to appoint somebody and so forth. So, that’s one thing I want to get out of that meeting when it happens is that in order to decide one component of financing, you gotta know the whole financial package.
- John DeFrancisco, New York State Senator

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