Earlier this week Streetsblog sat down with General Contractors Association Managing Director Denise Richardson for a wide-ranging discussion on the financial state of New York’s transportation systems. In the first installment of the interview, we discussed the MTA’s capital program, which is moving forward with important repair work but saddling transit riders with huge amounts of debt, and the inability of the federal government to pass a new transportation bill.
In the second part of our conversation, we discussed New York’s highway system, which consumes hundreds of millions of dollars in general taxes a year, and Governor Cuomo’s enigmatic New York Works Fund. We also touched on why construction costs are high and always seem to get higher, and the timing of transit construction on the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement.
Noah Kazis: I want to ask about the New York Works plan. To start off, what is the New York Works plan, in your mind?
Denise Richardson: Well I know what I’ve read in the papers.
If you look at New York’s history, we are a state that developed around our infrastructure. New York, from colonial times, was a business city, it focused on trade. The Erie Canal, the railroads, the road system. We are an infrastructure state, even though we pretend not to be. The governor said, “Where do we stack up nationally, in terms of infrastructure?” And that was not a very good picture at all. In a state that needs to create jobs, the linkage was obvious. And I think it’s a great program.
“We have to stop treating the public like idiots. If we’re going to do some major public works project, we should tell the public what it’s really going to cost.”
My concern about it is obviously funding. The governor has made the statement that he doesn’t want to raise taxes. I think that to make New York Works a permanent part of the infrastructure funding strategy, there needs to be real money there. His discussions about tapping pension fund investments –pension funds are seen as a source of easy money, but there are a lot of issues associated with pension fund investments. As a trustee on some pension funds, I can tell you that it’s not as easy as it sounds. There needs to be a very stable rate of return, tied to very definite revenues, and that’s not saying, “The state guarantees to pay.” From what revenue source?
But I think the fact that the governor announced that Felix Rohatyn is going to head it up — everyone living in New York City, if they don’t know who he is, should learn, since he was instrumental in saving the city — I think the fact that he has once again come to the fore gives us a level of confidence that it will be a stable, funded program.
NK: To confirm, there haven’t been any sort of real monies attached to the New York Works yet?
DR: Not that I’ve seen. Hopefully, as the governor puts the team together, I’m sure that the funding pieces will fall into place.