“Mystery” $3.8 transportation bond act

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Eye from Albany
October 2000

“Mystery” $3.8 transportation bond act
by Paul M. Bray

There is a fall chill in the air as I sit down in mid-August to try to figure out what is happening with the $3.8 billion dollar transportation bond act that will go to the voters in November.

By this time bond act proponents of what is the largest bond issue ever put to New York State voters should be geared up to sell the message that these added billions of debt are absolutely necessary. As bond act advocate AJ Castelbuono of the Associated General Contractors is quoted in the Capital District Business Review as saying, ‘It’ll take a lot of education before November’.

Yet the pro-highway groups seem eerily quiet as they wait with everyone else for word from the Governor and two legislative leaders on a promised memorandum of understanding or list of projects where the bond act money will be used. The memorandum was promised for the long past deadline of mid-June. But we all know how little deadlines mean in Albany.

Reacting to the failure to produce the memorandum, an editorial in the Times Union in Albany called the bond act ‘A $3.8 billion mystery’ and State Comptroller H. Carl McCall declared that without more details on where the money would be spent he was ‘ambivalent’ about the bond act. U.S. Senate candidate Rick Lazio who is allied with the Governor seems to share the ambivalence. Governor Pataki is also reported to be luke warm on the bond act. Jeff Jones from Environmental Advocates told me that the statewide organization has not taken a position on the bond act and has no plan to take a position. I doubt the voters will go for billions for transportation without without an environmental stamp of approval.

Needless to say this doesn’t bode well for success for this bond act to succeed in November. It is adding up to being a big time failed opportunity to put the State’s transportation house in order when there are great needs and opportunities on the door step.

The way the bond act was crafted was not forward looking. Pressed by the Associated General Contractors of America and other pro-highway groups, the $3.8 billion is generally divided between subway, bus, ferry and commuter rail projects downstate and bridge and road improvement and maintenance that the state is responsible for upstate. Yes, the pie is divided between transit and roads, but it is the same old upstate, downstate divide without accounting for changing transportation approaches and environmental considerations.

The bond act took shape in a context of a State in need of billions to repair roads and bridges and maintain transit and commuter rail facilities and many more billions for new facilities like the $9 billion second avenue subway, a $2.3 billion rail-freight tunnel under the New York Harbor and more modest projects like the light rail and bus rapid transit Route 5 corridor project taking shape between Albany and Schenectady.

How are these billions going to be financed’ How much more is the highway and transit users going to pay’ Hbbow much will come from general revenue and what some will call risky debt’ Should we be taking on transportation generated debt by this bond act without a better road map for future financing as hard as that is to do politically’ Without the Memorandum on bond act projects, there is not even road map for the bond act.

There is also the contextual change of transportation planning from a dominance by highway interests to balanced or integrated and environmentally sensitive transportation planning and development that should have been addressed.

The Feds got on the balanced transportation band wagon in 1991 and 1998 when the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century were, respectively, enacted to distribute transportation funds to the states. This brought environmentalists, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit interests to the table with highway people when it comes to deciding transportation policy and development. The upshot is seen in areas like New York’s Capital Region where its transportation planning entity, Capital District Transportation Committee (CDTC), prepared a ‘New Visions’ long-range plan with many principles and efforts to have balanced transportation investment to strengthen communities.

But with the pending bond act New York State has missed a golden opportunity to use it as a defining statement to guide transportation policy in the 21st century. Why wasn’t this bond act a State Transportation Equity Bond Act’

The change from highway domination to environmentally compatible, balanced and anti-sprawl transportation in New York has been hit and miss. Yes, Governor Pataki has sought to have the state’s transportation agency (DOT) and its engineers be more environmentally sensitive and, as noted, some planning entities like CDTC have shown they understand transportation equity. But, for example, DOT’s immediate and long-range plans for Long Island have been criticized as replete with sprawl and traffic-inducing highway expansion projects.

So what is a columnist to think about this bond act in light of typical inertia and short sightedness in Albany’ I am afraid I am in the same morass of ambivalence as many others are. Perhaps by the time you are reading this column in October the Memorandum of projects will be completed and public and, more importantly, the Governor and legislative leaders will have started a discourse on long term financing of our transportation needs as well as having made a clear commitment to balanced, environmental and anti-sprawl transportation planning and development from here on. Then a vote in favor of the bond act in November will make allot more sense.