Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Department of Transportation has billions of dollars at its disposal to spend on capital projects but doesn’t tell the public what it plans to do with the money. A bipartisan bill in both houses of the state legislature aims to change that.
Unlike the MTA capital plan, which is open to public scrutiny, the state DOT’s project list for its five-year capital program remains a mystery, even after the state legislature approved $27 billion dollars for it in April.
The process used to be more open, with the legislature and governor openly discussing the DOT’s annual list of projects. But that basic level of transparency ended some years ago, said Tri-State Transportation Campaign New York Director Nadine Lemmon. Now when legislators ask for the project list, the Cuomo administration fails to deliver it.
The opaque process makes it harder to hold the governor’s office and the state DOT accountable. For the last few years, for instance, Tri-State has called on the Cuomo administration to dedicate $20 million annually to complete streets projects. Without a list of projects, there’s no way to know if that request has been met. Lemmon said she’s had to piece together the DOT’s project list from press releases and recent statements by Cuomo and his staff.
A project list that’s shielded from scrutiny is more susceptible to political horse-trading and less likely to reflect public priorities. “There is some public value to seeing [the list] before it gets passed,” Lemmon said. “[Otherwise] it’s behind closed doors. It’s subject to all the terrible things that could happen in a political process.”
On Friday, the Albany Times Union editorial board blasted the budgeting approach. The lack of transparency “makes these decisions too easily subject to unhealthy considerations — like political rewards and punishments,” the paper wrote. “While it may not take the politics out of the process altogether, opening these spending decisions to greater public scrutiny would certainly help. If there’s nothing to hide, there’s no reason to keep it secret.”