A Transportation Agenda for New York’s Next Governor

Kate Slevin is executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, and this post was originally published on TSTC's blog, Mobilizing the Region. If and when the candidates produce transportation platforms, we'll see whether they acknowledge the truth inherent in many of these proposals: You don't have to spend big on transportation to achieve big improvements in safety, sustainability, access to jobs and housing, and New Yorkers' quality of life.

With a deepening budget crisis and continued chaos in Albany, New York’s next governor will inherit no shortage of challenges. Transportation is no exception: Transit systems across the state face incredible deficits and the state lacks a 21st century transportation agenda. How the governor chooses to deal with transportation issues in 2011 and beyond will dictate the future state of our transit and road systems and shape our landscape for decades to come.

From top: Candidates Cuomo, Lazio, and Paladino. Photos via candidate websites.

So far, all the campaigns have been relatively quiet on transportation issues. Front-runner Andrew Cuomo has said he will upgrade downstate airports and create a state infrastructure bank, but his positions on broader policy and funding questions remain a mystery. Republican candidates Rick Lazio and Carl Paladino have offered even fewer details about their transportation priorities, and neither has a transportation section on their campaign website.

What should the next governor’s transportation agenda look like? Below are a few places for the candidates to start:

Reform New York State DOT into a smart growth leader. Old-fashioned approaches to projects, questionable spending decisions, and the collapse of the Champlain Bridge are signs that NYSDOT is ripe for change. A strong, reform-minded leader at the department could bring that change, as Janette Sadik-Khan has done for NYCDOT and Joseph Marie did for the Connecticut Department of Transportation until a few weeks ago. Existing New York state programs could serve as launching points. NYSDOT's GreenLITES program, for example, views transportation projects through a lens of sustainability; the proposed Community Corridor and Land Use Planning Initiative would have the agency work with communities to develop comprehensive solutions to transportation problems; and the state is working with towns toward smart growth planning in the Lower Hudson Valley. New Jersey’s NJFIT program and Pennsylvania’s Smart Transportation program also offer ideas.

Replace the Sheridan Expressway with parks and housing. Few projects offer the smart growth, equity, and sustainability benefits of removing the underutilized Sheridan Expressway in the South Bronx and replacing it with more appropriate development. The next governor should back this proposal and make it a hallmark of a broader sustainable redevelopment effort.

Fund transit and support new revenue streams. The MTA’s operating deficit is $900 million, the capital program is unfunded after 2011, and riders are paying more for less service. Outside of NYC, non-MTA bus systems only have half the revenue they need to maintain existing service.  The governor will have to make the tough decisions to ensure the transit systems in our region are protected from severe cutbacks that could cripple them for generations to come. Setting up a commission, as Governor Paterson did in 2008, is a good way to start the discussion.  East River Bridge tolls, allowing solo drivers to pay a toll to use the HOV lanes on the Long Island Expressway, a higher gas tax, and allowing Thruway tolls to fund transit service are all possibilities worth consideration. On the federal level, the governor should direct the MTA to support modest federal aid for transit operations, something it has traditionally opposed.

Improve suburban transit, especially for bus riders. Nassau County’s Long Island Bus is facing cuts that could destroy the system. Westchester’s Bee-Line Bus just cut service. A new funding agreement between the counties, MTA and state and a new administrative structure for the agency could offer cost savings and protect service for riders. On the capital side, the next governor should also support the LIRR third track project (key if Long Islanders are to reap the benefits of East Side Access) and plans for bus rapid transit in the Tappan Zee Bridge/I-287 corridor.

Improve cross-Hudson transit service. NYC and New Jersey both benefit from strong transit connections across the Hudson. With the groundbreaking of the ARC passenger rail tunnel last year, there is finally hope for reduced congestion and improved transit connections across the Hudson, not to mention economic benefits for homeowners. The next governor should continue to support ARC, and ensure the Port Authority also works for near-term improvements for cross-Hudson bus riders. This includes prioritizing plans for a second Manhattan-bound bus lane through the Lincoln Tunnel and building a bus garage on the West Side of Manhattan, a key project that has been postponed by the Port Authority due to budget deficits.

Make roads safer and adopt a complete streets policy. Nearly 300 people die while walking in New York State each year. Traffic calming offers tremendous safety enhancements on dangerous roadways for limited capital investment. The next governor should use federal dollars to fix the states’ most dangerous roads for walking, expand affordable and effective programs like the Local Safe Streets and Traffic Calming Grant and SafeSeniors programs, and start a new statewide Safe Routes to Transit program. The governor should also support the complete streets policy that passed the Senate earlier this year.

Keep innovative leaders. Port Authority Executive Director Chris Ward and MTA Executive Director Jay Walder have brought innovation and cost savings to their agencies during difficult financial times. Maintaining both appointments could allow the agencies to focus attention on the economic challenges ahead, rather than on transitions to new directors.