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Where Is Andrew Cuomo’s Climate Plan?

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Andrew Cuomo could be a national leader on climate policy through his stewardship of New York’s transit system. Other than the occasional photo op, he hasn’t shown much interest. Photo: Governor’s office

Mayor Bill de Blasio was one of the estimated 400,000 people marching in Manhattan Sunday to urge world leaders to avert catastrophic climate change before it’s too late. And he backed it up by having his administration commit to reducing New York City’s carbon emissions 80 percent from 2005 levels by 2050. Andrew Cuomo, meanwhile, was nowhere to be found at the People’s Climate March, and for good reason. The governor’s climate plan consists mainly of a single strategy: Brace for impact.

The de Blasio climate plan is all about buildings, augmenting efforts begun by the Bloomberg administration to make the city’s building stock less polluting and more efficient. This makes sense since buildings account for such a large share of New York’s carbon emissions, and the city has considerable power to regulate them. While it would be great to see more about transportation in the de Blasio climate plan, City Hall has already set goals to make city streets more walkable, bikeable, and transit-friendly. The administration is doing these things in the name of safety and expanding economic opportunity, not sustainability, but the end result will still be more sustainable streets.

Meanwhile, the transportation infrastructure that undergirds New York’s light carbon footprint — the fundamental reason New Yorkers emit a fraction of the CO2 an average American does — is not the mayor’s to control. The transit system is Governor Cuomo’s responsibility, and he’s been flaking on it since the first time he robbed from the MTA to pay for the state’s general obligations.

On Monday the governor signed a law that will help cities and towns prepare for the effects of climate change. Noticeably absent from the message was the urgency of preventing climate disaster in the first place.

The same day, the MTA posted documents laying out the $15 billion gap in its upcoming five-year, $32 billion capital program. The capital program is how the MTA will keep the transit system in reliable working condition, modernize ancient signals and other equipment, and expand rail and busways.

Governor Cuomo, however, is nowhere to be found as the MTA board takes up the matter of the capital program and how to pay for it.

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EPA Rejects Cuomo’s Clean Water Money Grab for Highway Bridge

This morning, the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the $510.9 million federal loan New York state had requested from a clean water program to pay for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project. Only $29 million worth of TZB work is eligible for clean water money, the EPA’s regional office ruled, averting a dangerous precedent that could have let governors across the country raid environmental funds to pay for highways.

Building a new highway bridge with clean water funds? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

Using clean water funds to replace this highway bridge? Forget about it, says the EPA. Photo: D. Robert Wolcheck/Flickr

“New York’s request presents a unique circumstance that is unprecedented… no other state has made a request of this type or magnitude,” wrote Joan Leary Matthews, regional director of EPA’s clean water division [PDF]. “There is no evidence… that the [Clean Water State Revolving Fund] was intended to fund mitigation for major construction projects within an estuary. Construction activities arising from transportation projects do not advance water quality, and CWSRF funding should not be used for these purposes.”

The Thruway Authority had planned on using the $510.9 million loan on twelve projects. Today, EPA rejected seven of those projects, totaling $481.8 million, because they are directly tied to building the new bridge. The projects deemed ineligible are: removal of the existing bridge, dredging for construction vessels, armoring the river bottom, installation of an underwater noise attenuation system, construction of a bike-pedestrian path on the new bridge, restoration of oyster beds, and the installation of a falcon nest box.

The state will be able to receive funding for five projects, totaling $29.1 million: the restoration of Gay’s Point and Piermont Marsh, the installation of stormwater management measures, and the creation of a conservation benefit plan, including an Atlantic sturgeon outreach program.

Environmental advocates and good government groups staunchly opposed the loan, saying that allowing clean water funds to be used for highway construction would set a dangerous precedent. “It’s great that the agency in charge of calling balls and strikes has called the state out,” said Peter Iwanowicz, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York. “But we shouldn’t have gotten here in the first place.”

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Reinvent This: Cuomo Cuts Future Investment to Pay for MTA Labor Deals

When Governor Cuomo smiled for the cameras to announce labor deals with the Transport Workers Union and Long Island Rail Road unions, he promised they wouldn’t push already-planned fare hikes any higher. The unanswered question was: How much will this cost, and how is he going to pay for it? Now we know: The governor’s MTA is moving money away from investments in the system’s long-term upkeep, widening a $12 billion hole even as a panel of experts studies ways to pay for needed improvements.

He appointed a commission, but will Governor Cuomo do what it takes to fund the MTA's future? Photo: Diana Robinson

He appointed a commission, but will Governor Cuomo do what it takes to fund the MTA’s future after cutting capital plan funds to pay for labor deals? Photo: Diana Robinson/Flickr

Yesterday, the MTA released its proposed 2015 budget and four-year financial plan. It reveals that labor deals, including expected settlements with Metro-North workers, will cost the authority at least $1.28 billion through 2017.

Over the same period, the MTA is expected to save $635 million through higher revenue from taxes, tolls, and fares, and better than expected savings on para-transit, energy, health care, and debt service. It’s also continuing internal cost-cutting measures. The net result: There’s a new $645 million hole in the MTA’s budget over the next three years.

How to fill it? The authority is cutting its long-term contributions to pensions and other retiree funds, and will even dip into existing funds this year. That covers most of the gap. The rest will come by cutting the contribution the MTA makes to its capital plan, which funds both big expansion projects and state of good repair for reliable buses, trains, and stations.

The MTA’s contribution from its operating budget to its capital plan is a down payment on the next round of planned investments. City, state, and federal dollars are less certain, and they’re secured later to fund the majority of the program.

In February, the MTA said it planned to contribute $370 million each year from its operating budget to the capital program. If it used these funds to issue bonds, it could leverage $6.5 billion over eight years. Thanks to the new labor agreements, that number has been cut by more than one-fifth, down to $290 million a year. The MTA says this will cost the capital program $1.5 billion.

Comptroller Tom DiNapoli, assuming the MTA would contribute what it said it would earlier this year, warned last week that the capital program faces a $12 billion gap. Yesterday, that gap got $1.5 billion wider. That’s not chump change: The MTA has identified $26.6 billion in capital needs over the next five years.

Paying for the capital plan with more debt brings big risks. The MTA has already increased its debt load to record levels to pay for capital investments. In fact, 17 cents of every dollar the MTA spends in its 2015 budget goes to debt service, costing the authority $2.4 billion a year. That’s about how much it costs to operate Metro-North ($1.2 billion) and Long Island Rail Road ($1.4 billion) combined. Without changes to the status quo, paying off that debt will ultimately fall to straphangers, since fares and tolls comprise a majority of the MTA’s operating income. In other words, by pushing costs to the capital program, the labor agreements could result in a fare hike — just not right now.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The governor has appointed a “transportation reinvention commission” to study, among other things, ways to fund the capital program. It’s set to release recommendations in September, less than a month before the MTA sends its next five-year capital plan to the state. With the latest cut to the capital plan’s funding, the need for other sources of revenue just became even more pressing.

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State Panel OKs $255 Million Clean Water Raid for Tappan Zee Bridge

This afternoon, the Public Authorities Control Board signed off on a loan from the state’s clean water fund to help finance the new Tappan Zee Bridge. The board approved half of the $511 million loan that Governor Andrew Cuomo is seeking, but the administration called it “the first installment” of the loan, creating the expectation of more clean water money to finance the extra-wide highway bridge. The approval, likely to be further challenged by advocates, could set a dangerous precedent for other governors looking to raid clean water funds for highway construction.

Why is this man smiling? He just took a big chunk of change for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

Why is this man smiling? He just got money for his new bridge from a clean water fund. Photo: Azi Paybarah/Flickr

The board’s three voting members – Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, State Senator John DeFrancisco, and Governor Andrew Cuomo’s budget director, Robert Megna — each could have vetoed the loan. Silver and DeFrancisco said today they voted for the smaller loan to limit the negative impact on the state’s clean water revolving fund.

“This will do nothing to impair the ability to make loans,” DeFrancisco said of the $255 million loan, which will fund, among other things, environmentally-harmful dredging, according to Bloomberg. “These things have to be done. Why not out of an environmental fund?”

Environmental advocates disagreed. “It is simply not true to say that the $255 million loan is ‘environmental’ funding, when the vast majority of that sum is for bridge construction and related work,” said New York League of Conservation Voters President Marcia Bystryn. “Clean-water loans are meant for clean-water projects — not for a bridge — and today’s vote could set a dangerous precedent that will inspire states around the country to start diverting clean-water dollars.”

“A raid is a raid, and a quarter billion dollars in public money should not be bandied about behind closed doors without proper public scrutiny,” said Environmental Advocates of New York Executive Director Peter Iwanowicz. “Using clean water funds to build a bridge is not creative leadership, it is behaving like a kid in a candy store.”

The state played down its use of a federally subsidized clean water loan on a highway project by insisting it would pay off the debt. “This loan will be repaid and then recycled to benefit other clean-water projects across the state,” said Environmental Facilities Corporation president and CEO Matthew J. Driscoll. The EFC’s board of Cuomo appointees approved the loan last month. Driscoll added that he hopes the bridge project can secure the other half of the loan in 2016.

“The Thruway Authority is committed to an unprecedented level of environmental stewardship,” said Thruway Authority executive director Thomas J. Madison, “and also to keeping tolls on the new spans as low as possible.”

The financing plan for the Tappan Zee remains a mystery to the public, and many opposed to the loan hoped the control board would use its power to wrest some more information from the Cuomo administration about how the state is going to pay for the bridge. That didn’t happen today. “We are no closer to knowing the Governor’s math for this loan or this bridge than we were a month ago,” Iwanowicz said.

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Two Men Can Stop Cuomo From Building a Highway With Clean Water Funds

Two men — Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and State Senator John DeFrancisco – stand between Governor Andrew Cuomo and his plan to use the state’s clean water fund to finance construction of the Tappan Zee Bridge.

It's up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo's clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

It’s up to Speaker Sheldon Silver, left, and Senator John DeFrancisco, right, to stop Cuomo’s clean water fund raid. Photos: NY Legislature

The $511 million low-interest loan for the Tappan Zee (stated goal: “keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible”) uses money from the Clean Water State Revolving Fund reserved for New York City. Although the fund is meant to finance things like wastewater treatment plants, not highway construction, the loan was approved late last month by the Cuomo-controlled Environmental Facilities Corporation.

It still needs final sign-off from the Public Authorities Control Board, where three members each wield veto power over new debt issued by state authorities. The loan is on the agenda for the board’s meeting on Wednesday, and either Silver or DeFrancisco could stop, or at least delay, its approval. (The other member, state budget director Robert Menga, is a Cuomo appointee and supports the loan, according to Bloomberg.)

A coalition of environmental, transportation, and good-government groups — including the Regional Plan Association, which has generally supported the TZB project — are calling on control board members to use their veto power. “This loan could set a dangerous precedent and lead other states into using these funds for projects with little or no connection to the protection of water quality and water resources,” the advocates wrote in a letter to the board [PDF]. “At a minimum, we request that the Board delay a vote on the loan.”

“We don’t think this is a good idea,” RPA spokeswoman Wendy Pollack said. “Or a good precedent.”

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking supporters to contact board members and urge them to vote against the loan.

Silver remains noncommittal, even though the Tappan Zee loan would use funds intended for New York City clean water projects. ”We are reviewing the matter,” spokesperson Mike Whyland said in an email.

DeFrancisco, a Syracuse-area Republican, is giving a similar line. “He’s still examining the issue. He hasn’t made a decision yet,” said spokesperson Tiffany Latino.

Last week, DeFrancisco said that he wouldn’t hesitate to stop the loan without more answers from the Cuomo administration. “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,” he told Capital Tonight. “If I got a vote, I’m gonna use it.”

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What We Know So Far About Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission

In early May, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed the MTA to create a “transportation reinvention” panel as the authority prepared its next five-year capital plan. Members were appointed late last month, and the commission has launched Facebook and Twitter accounts. But details about its agenda and how open it will be to the public are scant. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking: The MTA capital plan has to be finalized by October 1.

Think big, act fast: Details are still murky on Andrew Cuomo's MTA reinvention commission. Photo: joiseyshowaa/Flickr

Think big, act fast: Andrew Cuomo’s MTA reinvention commission doesn’t have much time to come up with its recommendations. joiseyshowaa/Flickr

The MTA says it will announce public meetings by the end of this week, and commission members say those sessions are likely to happen next week, just days after being announced. Beyond that, things are hazy: There is no agenda for future commission meetings and no schedule for reporting the commission’s recommendations.

The 24-member panel, chaired by former US DOT Secretary Ray LaHood and former FAA Administrator Jane Garvey, is being advised by MTA staff as well as mega-consultant Parsons Brinckerhoff, which is already working on the Fulton Street Transit Center, East Side Access, Second Avenue Subway, and 7 train extension to Hudson Yards — all of which are in various states of budget overrun or delay.

Advocates on the commission say it’s off to a good start, however, and they’re optimistic about what will emerge from the process.

The panel met for the first time late last month and members have been broken into five subcommittees:

  • Operating and Maintaining the Existing System
  • Meeting and Exceeding Customer Needs
  • Spurring the Continued Growth of New York’s Economy
  • Financing Investments into the Future
  • Expediting Processes, Procedures and Project Delivery of Capital Infrastructure

The subcommittees, which have weighty issues to consider, have each met at least once, sometimes via conference call. Veronica Vanterpool, executive director of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, says members haven’t been afraid to think big. ”Many of us are taking it to heart that this is a reinvention commission, and that things that have not been discussed before really should be on the table going forward, even if they’re just ideas,” she said. ”It’s sort of rethinking our transportation network in this region.”

“The whole thing feels like it has more energy than the typical fare or service hearing,” said commission member Gene Russianoff of NYPIRG’s Straphangers Campaign. “I’m hoping the commission finds a serious way to get people to think along with it about how we improve on transit.”

How that will happen remains to be seen, even to commission members. “It’s hard to talk specifics,” Vanterpool said. ”I’m assuming this is going to be due this summer, but I don’t have any firm dates.”

“The commission hasn’t yet established a specific date by which it expects to conclude and/or report its work,” said MTA spokesperson Aaron Donovan. There is one final deadline: The MTA will submit its five-year capital plan to the governor and the legislature by October 1.

The MTA reinvention commission isn’t the first transit panel created in New York state, but the three most recent examples all had more time to deliberate publicly and come up with recommendations than the MTA reinvention commission.

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Four Tough Problems the MTA Reinvention Commission Needs to Tackle

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission met for the first time last week at the agency’s midtown headquarters. Cuomo has charged the 22-member commission with developing a plan “to make our subways and our entire transit system ready for the challenges of the next century.” The commission’s recommendations are expected to shape the MTA’s next capital program — its five-year plan for maintenance and expansion — as well as the authority’s long-term planning and vision.

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/mtaphotos/12780228293/in/set-72157641529209245##MTA/Flickr##

Governor Cuomo’s MTA Reinvention Commission will have to address the high cost of construction for mega-projects like the Second Avenue Subway. Photo: MTA/Flickr

How effective the commission will be is unclear. Governor Cuomo has stymied other high profile commissions when they’ve gone against his inclinations, like when the McCall/Solomon tax commission suggested that the state scale back its film and TV tax credit, or when he disbanded the Moreland Commission.

Still, the commission provides a good opportunity to address some of the key challenges and questions facing the MTA.

The issue of resilience immediately comes to mind. Hurricane Sandy made it clear that future storms and rising seas are an immediate threat to the system. This is an issue that is well understood and is likely to enjoy strong political support. Government tends to act effectively in the aftermath of disasters because the effects are immediate and observable. They rise above politics.

However, there are other, more difficult problems that will require taking political risk to solve.

The authority has racked up $32 billion in debt, up from $16.6 billion in 2003. It shelled out $2.3 billion for debt service payments last year — nearly a fifth of the operating budget — and debt service is projected to rise to $2.8 billion by 2017. The growing share of the budget that goes toward debt payments creates pressure for fare hikes and eats into what the agency can spend on delivering service.

A more stable and reliable source of revenue must be established. The best plan out there right now is the Gridlock Sam/Move NY “Fair Plan” — raising tolls to enter the Manhattan CBD while lowering them on MTA crossings in the outer boroughs. This would have the added benefit of relieving congestion where it is most intense, speeding up surface transit for hundreds of thousands of riders. A key indicator of the commission’s independence will be whether it takes on an issue as vital and contentious as toll reform.

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Cuomo Panel Approves Clean Water Funds for Highway Bridge Construction

Earlier today, the state Environmental Facilities Corporation unanimously approved a $511 million loan from the state’s federally-funded clean water program to the Tappan Zee Bridge construction project, using funds intended for clean water initiatives in New York City.

The state says this is an estuary protection project worthy of low-interest clean water funds. Image: Thruway Authority

In its press release, the board of Cuomo appointees said the loan, which will help the Thruway Authority save at least $17 million over three years, will go to pay for projects that mitigate the negative impact of the highway and “will help keep tolls on the new bridge as low as possible.”

The state says the highway qualifies for the loan — half of which is low-interest, the other half interest-free — because it is an estuary protection project that helps implement an EPA-approved estuary plan. The state claims the Tappan Zee project helps implement an estuary plan dating from 1996 focused on New York Harbor. While the bridge is just outside the plan’s core area, it does fall within its “watershed-based” boundaries.

Advocates aren’t buying it. According to their calculations, only $12.5 million of the $511 million loan would go to “genuine environmentally beneficial projects,” all of which the state agreed to as part of mitigation for the highway. In addition, the Tappan Zee environmental impact statement, completed two years ago, never mentions the estuary plan once. If the bridge project is related to protecting the estuary, why was that never mentioned before the state set out to get a clean water loan?

Robert Pirani is program director for the New York-New Jersey Harbor and Estuary Program, the EPA-funded initiative that created the 1996 plan. “They’re not projects that are discussed in the comprehensive management plan,” he said of the Tappan Zee loan.

Pirani noted that it’s up to the state to determine whether its own highway qualifies for the clean water loan. “There’s a lot of stuff we just don’t know,” he said. “They need to justify to themselves that this is an appropriate use of the funding.”

Advocates are also worried that the state could snap its fingers and turn this loan into funding with no expectation of repayment.

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EPA to Cuomo: Paying for a Highway With Clean Water Funds? Not So Fast

So where's the "highway" section of the clean water fund? Governor Cuomo thinks it's hidden under "estuary." Image: EPA

Governor Andrew Cuomo wants to use “estuary protection” money from New York State’s clean water fund to build an enormous highway over the Hudson. Image: EPA

Will anyone stop Governor Andrew Cuomo from using the state’s clean water program to pay for a big new highway bridge to replace the Tappan Zee?

The governor wants to take out a $511 million low-interest loan to cover part of the multi-billion dollar Tappan Zee replacement. A panel of Cuomo appointees is expected to green-light the maneuver at an 11:30 a.m. vote today, but state legislators and good government advocates are putting up a fight, saying the deal sets a dangerous precedent for a program intended for projects like wastewater treatment plants.

Yesterday, the regional office of the EPA got involved, saying it wants the state to answer more questions before taking federal clean water funds designated for New York City and using them to build the new Tappan Zee.

The New York League of Conservation Voters is asking New Yorkers to contact members of the panel before the vote to urge them not to sign off on the loan.

Cuomo’s bridge funding ploy reeks of political desperation. Early in his term he committed to the Tappan Zee project as a symbol of his ability to get things done, but there’s no way to pay for the mega-bridge he wants to build without either large toll hikes or fiscal shenanigans and sleight of hand.

The governor is now entering a reelection campaign against Westchester County Executive Rob Astorino, who is acutely aware of the Tappan Zee toll situation. Hence the current monkey business with the clean water fund.

So far, Cuomo has skirted the question of paying for the new Tappan Zee, delaying appointments to a promised toll and financing task force. While he has secured a $1.5 billion low-interest federal loan, the largest ever approved by U.S. DOT, he’ll need more cheap money to finance the $3.9 billion bridge. Cuomo is looking outside the Thruway Authority and its at-risk bond rating to better-rated state authorities that have lots of cash.

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NYC Bike-Ped Projects Get $21 Million in Federal Funds From State DOT

On Tuesday, Governor Cuomo announced that the state DOT is awarding $21.2 million in federal highway safety funds over three years to nine projects in New York City that all include big safety improvements for biking and walking. Advocates welcomed the news, but still have questions about whether the state is allocating enough money to active transportation projects statewide.

Concrete pedestrian islands on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park just received millions in state funding, but advocates question if too many other projects are missing out. Image: NYC DOT

Concrete pedestrian islands on Fourth Avenue in Sunset Park just received millions in state funding, but advocates question if too many other projects are missing out. Rendering: NYC DOT

The New York City awards are:

  • $4 million for 1.3 miles of Atlantic Avenue between Georgia Avenue and Conduit Boulevard in Brooklyn. The project features median extensions at seven intersections, turn restrictions, and new street trees to slow driver speeds.
  • $900,000 for 2.4 miles of Bruckner Boulevard between Bronx River Avenue and East 132nd Street in the Bronx to establish what the governor’s press release calls “a north/south pedestrian and bicycle corridor.”
  • $800,000 for East Tremont Avenue in the Bronx. This project widens and installs pedestrian islands, clarifies complex intersections, studies signal timing for potential phasing changes and new signals, and narrows wide travel lanes.
  • $4 million for the third phase of a project on the Grand Concourse in the Bronx, for 0.6 miles between East 171st Street and East 175th Street. This road reconstruction will add medians, pedestrian refuges, bike lane buffers and bollards.
  • $4 million for 0.7 miles of Fourth Avenue from 33rd to 47th Streets in Brooklyn. This project widens medians to up to 19 feet to include planted areas and pedestrian refuges.
  • $4 million for Tillary and Adams Streets in Brooklyn. Improvements include bike lanes and protected paths, larger pedestrian islands, and shorter crossings.
  • $1 million for 0.4 miles of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. Boulevard between West 117th and 110th Streets. This project will construct concrete pedestrian islands that were installed last year with paint and other low-cost materials.
  • $500,000 for one mile of Riverside Drive between West 116th and 135th Streets. The project will add crosswalks and bicycle markings, as well as pedestrian islands and curb extensions at 116th and Riverside.
  • $2 million for 4.3 miles of Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. This project, managed by state DOT, includes new traffic signals and pedestrian countdown clocks, modified signal timing, pedestrian islands, and turn restrictions.

These grants are funded by the federal Highway Safety Improvement Program. The state’s announcement covers 2015 through 2017, the final three fiscal years funded by the latest federal transportation bill.

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