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Transit Riders: The MTA Can’t Run on Cuomo’s IOUs

Riders Alliance organizer Masha Burina speaking outside the Bowling Green subway station this morning. Photo: David Meyer

Straphangers can’t pay the MTA with an IOU, so why should Governor Andrew Cuomo get away with it?

That’s the message Riders Alliance members brought to the MTA board meeting this morning. After trying and failing to swipe into the Bowling Green subway station with a giant “IOU” Metrocard, the group proceeded to MTA headquarters.

In October, Cuomo committed to contribute $7.3 billion to the MTA’s five-year capital program on top of $1 billion provided in last year’s budget. This year’s budget, however, includes zero dollars for the capital plan (but somehow musters $3.4 billion for roads). Instead, Cuomo’s proposal makes a vague gesture to provide that money sometime in the future — once the MTA has exhausted all other funding sources.

“The machine wouldn’t take it, the agent wouldn’t take, and the turnstile wouldn’t take it,” Riders Alliance member Macartney Morris told the board. “If I can’t use an IOU, Governor Cuomo shouldn’t either.”

Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers’ Campaign called Cuomo’s funding scheme “magical” and questioned the sincerity of the governor’s commitment. “It’s like in one of those fairy tales, you know, ‘I’ll give you the money, but first go pick up a clover, and then some blonde hair, and then magic potion,’” he said. “Only for you, the MTA, it’s, ‘First go out and spend $100 million, and then buy a big building — two big buildings, three big buildings — sell them, then go charge your customers $6 billion.’ This is not a good IOU for you or the public.”

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Cuomo’s Capital Budget: $3,400,000,000 for Roads, $0 for MTA

Here’s something NYC representatives should be screaming about in Albany: Governor Cuomo’s budget allocates more than $3 billion to roads and bridges but nothing to the MTA’s capital program, according to an analysis released today by the Riders Alliance. The discrepancy amounts to a gigantic transfer of resources from the New York City region to the statewide road program.

When Cuomo announced a few months ago that the state would commit $8.3 billion to the MTA’s five-year capital program, upstate representatives started howling about “parity” between funding for roads and bridges and funding for NYC transit. They saw the MTA getting a slice of state funds, and they wanted a cut for their districts.

But once the governor revealed his executive budget, the disparity actually ran in the other direction: Billions in direct subsidies were slated for roads and bridges, and no state money had been set aside for the MTA this year.

There’s no public policy rationale for transportation funding “parity” — just a political tradition of divvying up state resources in a manner that can garner a majority of votes in the state legislature. Viewing Cuomo’s budget proposal in that light, why should New York City’s assembly members and state senators vote for a spending plan that blatantly swindles their constituents?

Over the full five-year capital plan for roads and bridges, Cuomo is planning for $11.9 billion in direct state funding for the Department of Transportation, plus $2 billion in subsidies for the Thruway Authority, according to the Riders Alliance. By contrast, Cuomo has only spent $1 billion on the MTA’s five-year capital program. While the governor promised $7.3 billion in additional support, his budget delays that contribution indefinitely, essentially letting Cuomo avoid funding the MTA for as long as he remains in office.

And while the NYC region pays for a sizable share of the MTA capital plan — $11 billion — out of its own collective pocket through fares, tolls, and dedicated regional taxes, none of the state DOT’s capital funds come from local, dedicated revenue streams, the Riders Alliance reports. If the state continues to leave the MTA capital plan unfunded, subway and bus riders will end up shouldering more of the burden through higher fares.

This current budget proposal shows the huge imbalance created by Cuomo’s big dodge on MTA funding. Unless Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and NYC’s representatives change the governor’s budget, roads will get $3.4 billion in direct state subsidies plus $200 million in bank settlement funds, and New York City transit will get zilch.

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NYS Assembly Wants $20M for Safe Streets — Will Cuomo and Senate Agree?

In its one-house budget, the State Assembly is proposing to dedicate $20 million to safe streets projects statewide. It would be the first time New York has set aside dedicated funding for the state’s Complete Streets program, but so far neither Governor Cuomo nor the State Senate have included any such funding in their respective budget proposals.

New York State hasn’t guaranteed a dime for biking and walking projects since Governor Cuomo signed the Complete Streets law five years ago. Photo: Pat Arnow/Flickr

New York State hasn’t guaranteed a dime for biking and walking projects since Governor Cuomo signed the Complete Streets law five years ago. Photo: Pat Arnow/Flickr

The Tri-State Transportation Campaign reports that, since Cuomo signed a Complete Streets bill into law five years agoNew York hasn’t guaranteed any funding for walking and biking projects, while the federal pot for such projects has dwindled.

The law requires state and local transportation projects that fall under the jurisdiction of the state DOT and get federal and state funding to take walking and biking into account when appropriate.

Though $20 million doesn’t seem like much, Tri-State notes that it would almost double the $26 million in complete streets funding New York State is supposed to get from the feds annually under the FAST Act.

Given that people who walk and bike account for one in four traffic deaths in New York — the worst ratio of any state in the country, according to the Alliance for Biking & Walking — it’s vital that Albany help safe streets projects come to fruition.

“This is the first time a state budget bill has ever dedicated any state money to pedestrian and bike projects, so we consider this a big step forward,” Tri-State’s Nadine Lemmon told Streetsblog via email. “TSTC works in local communities across the state, and we often hear from mayors and leaders, ‘Why bother? There is no money to do what we want to do.’ If we can let them know New York State has stepped up, it will be a shot in the arm for local activists.”

Tri-State is asking New Yorkers to contact their State Senate reps and urge them to include $20 million in the Senate budget for Complete Streets.

It wouldn’t hurt to remind Cuomo that the safety of New Yorkers who aren’t driving motor vehicles matters too.

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Independent Watchdogs on Cuomo’s MTA Budget: Show Us the Money

Add the Independent Budget Office to the transit advocates and New York City electeds who aren’t buying Governor Andrew Cuomo’s claim that the state has met its commitment to fund the MTA. The IBO sums up the reasons not to take Cuomo at his word in a short brief released this week.

In October, Cuomo agreed that the state would contribute $8.3 billion to the MTA’s five-year capital program. Last year’s state budget accounted for $1 billion of that, but when Cuomo released his executive budget in January, it included no additional state funds for the capital program. Cuomo is still short $7.3 billion.

“Basically, it signals an alarm that funding for the system is precarious and uncertain,” Tri-State Transportation Campaign Executive Director Veronica Vanterpool said at a press conference in January. “It pushes the state’s pledge potentially into another administration.”

The IBO’s brief is wonky but short, and totally worth a read if you want to see the workings of MTA capital funding laid out in detail.

In theory, Cuomo’s budget obliges the state to follow through on its financial commitment, but here’s why that commitment remains very shaky, in bullet point form:

  • Cuomo’s budget kicks the can down the road by requiring the MTA to exhaust all other funding sources, include loans, before it receives state money. This could take several years.
  • The bill doesn’t require the state to make good on its funding commitment until FY 2025-2026 or “by the completion of the capital program,” which could be even later. (That’s because, while every five years the capital program lists projects to receive funding, the process of constructing those projects often takes much longer.)
  • Because the state and city agreed to make their MTA contributions on “the same schedule on a proportionate basis,” and the city is waiting on firm funding from the state, the city’s share ($2.5 billion) isn’t going to materialize as long as the state keeps delaying.

So Cuomo can say he’s solved the MTA funding problem, while in fact all he’s done is tee it up to become someone else’s problem in several years, when he’s no longer governor.

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36 Assembly Members to Cuomo: Stop Playing Games and Fund the MTA

Andrew Cuomo wants New Yorkers to think he’s taken care of the multi-billion dollar funding shortfall for the MTA capital program, even though his new budget allocates no new funds for the MTA. Well, 36 members of the Assembly aren’t buying it.

In a letter to Cuomo, Brooklyn Assembly Member Jim Brennan called on the governor to commit $1.825 billion annually over the next four years to the MTA. This would cover the $7.3 billion gap that remains in the capital program, the five-year package of critical maintenance projects and upgrades for the region’s transit system. Another 35 members of the Assembly have signed on to the letter.

In October, Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio reached an agreement in which the city would contribute $2.5 billion and the state $8.3 billion to the capital plan. The state had already allocated $1 billion of its share in previous budgets, but Cuomo’s proposed FY 2017 budget does not allocate any additional funding. Instead, it says the state will follow-through on its commitment to the capital plan only when the MTA has exhausted all other sources of funding, including loans.

Transit advocates and budget watchdogs pointed out that Cuomo was not making a real commitment, and that his stalling tactics could lead to excessive borrowing or a slowdown of necessary work on the capital program.

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On Transit Funding, Emperor Cuomo Has No Clothes

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive budget includes no new funds for the MTA capital program — a brazen departure from the funding pledge Cuomo made just a few months ago. Transit advocates laid out the broken promises at a press conference in Brooklyn this morning.

Back in October, Cuomo reached an agreement with Mayor de Blasio that the state would contribute $8.3 billion to the MTA’s five-year, $26 billion capital program if the city chipped in $2.5 billion. Cuomo didn’t reveal how the state would meet its obligation, however.

Then earlier this month, Cuomo announced his 2016 transportation agenda at the New York Transit Museum in Brooklyn, committing to “thinking bigger and better and building the 21st century transit system New Yorkers deserve.” Was that the prelude to a big reveal with specifics on the governor’s plan to pay for transit?

Transit advocates say the governor's proposed budget breaks his promise to fund the MTA capital plan. Photo: David Meyer

Transit advocates held Governor Cuomo to his October pledge to fill the gap in the MTA capital plan, funding that’s nowhere to be found in his executive budget. Photo: David Meyer

Nope. The budget Cuomo put forward later that week includes no additional funding for the capital program. The state had previously provided $1 billion to the MTA, leaving a hole of $7.3 billion unaccounted for.

Instead of spelling out where that money will come from, Cuomo’s budget delays any allocations until after the MTA has exhausted other means of paying for the capital program. In vague, non-binding language, the document says the state doesn’t have to meet its obligation until 2026, which would enable Cuomo to kick the can until he’s out of office.

Speaking outside the museum this morning,Veronica Vanterpool of the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, Gene Russianoff of the NYPIRG Straphangers Campaign, and Riders Alliance Executive Director John Raskin said Cuomo’s transit commitment was not really a commitment at all.

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Someone’s Gotta Pay for the Cuomo Transpo Plan, And It Won’t Be Motorists

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In Governor Cuomo’s proposed budget, Thruway drivers get a toll cut while New York City pays more for CUNY and Medicaid. Photo: NY.gov

Andrew Cuomo ran down his list of big transportation projects in the State of the State Address yesterday, and despite the billions it will take to build everything on his agenda, the governor didn’t say anything about how he’ll raise the money to pay for it. He did work in a line about toll cuts for Thruway drivers, though.

In the speech, Cuomo marveled at New York’s history of building “the longest bridges, the deepest tunnels” and set his sights on eclipsing the legacy of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Under Rockefeller in the 1960s, New York built a staggering amount of highways, but his most important contribution to the state’s transportation system had less to do with physical infrastructure and more with the structure of institutions.

By forming the MTA in 1968, Rockefeller wrested control of the Triborough Bridge and Tunnel Authority from Robert Moses and funneled its surplus toll revenues to the New York region’s transit system instead of the master builder’s road projects. Who knows what a busted mess New York City would be today if Moses had retained power much longer.

When it comes to transportation, Cuomo’s version of thinking big is all about monumental objects, not major institutional shifts that can deliver long-term prosperity. If he was secretly waiting until the last conceivable moment to come out for a transformational policy like the Move NY toll reform plan, the State of the State was pretty much it. No such luck — it looks like New York will be mired in traffic, thanks to its free bridges, at least until there’s a new governor.

Meanwhile, Cuomo’s commitments to road spending, the MTA capital program, and mega-projects of varying merit (LIRR third track beats the pants off the Airtrain to LaGuardia) still run into the tens of billions of dollars. Even if some of these projects end up just not happening (remember the Aqueduct convention center that Cuomo plugged a couple of years ago?), New Yorkers should be worried about who’s going to pick up the tab for it all. Especially the road projects, because if Cuomo has shown us anything about how he likes to pay for infrastructure, it’s that he’s averse to asking motorists to cover the cost of the highways and bridges they use.

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Here’s the Risk to Straphangers of Kicking the Can on the MTA Capital Plan

Rumors are swirling that the long-awaited answer to the key question vexing the MTA — how the state’s $8.3 billion share of the unfunded portion of the MTA capital plan will be paid for — is that dreaded four-letter word: D-E-B-T.

According to the terms of a deal reached by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor de Blasio in October, any additional debt should not be backed by MTA fares. But that deal could unravel — now, or in the future, when Cuomo is out of office.

What is the risk to straphangers if the deal implodes? I took a shot at calculating the answer, using my Balanced Transportation Analyzer model (Excel file).

The bottom line is that if the October agreement doesn’t hold up, financing the entire $8.3 billion “on the backs of transit users” would raise fares around 22-23 cents per ride. That would equate to an average 12 percent fare hike on top of the current average fare of $1.92. (That figure takes into account unlimiteds, free transfers, senior discounts, etc. and thus is well below the nominal $2.75 single-ride rate.)

The current 30-day unlimited price of $116.50 would rise by $14.00, shooting to $130.50, with the annualized increase of $168 surpassing the $149 cost of a Citi Bike membership. And the increase would be on top of the 4 percent biennial fare hikes the MTA has programmed indefinitely to cover rising operations costs.

As harsh as that would be, it’s a mere half of the impact I estimated here last May, before the MTA trimmed both the scope and cost of its 2015-2019 capital plan and before Governor Cuomo offloaded $2.5 billion in financing obligations onto Mayor de Blasio, reducing the state’s unfunded commitment to $8.3 billion.

On the other hand, holding the hit to 12 percent assumes favorable financing, notwithstanding the Federal Reserve’s boost in interest rates last month as well as the potential strain on the state’s borrowing capacity from other infrastructure projects that the governor announced last week. Just a one point increase in the MTA’s borrowing rate, to 5 percent instead of the 4 percent I’ve assumed, would tack another three or four cents onto the required fare hike.

In addition to further impoverishing millions of low-income New Yorkers, a 12 percent increase in subway and bus fares would be projected to have these consequences, based on the BTA model:

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Cuomo’s “Ambitious” Transport Program: a Hodgepodge of Pandering

Try to picture this: Governor Cuomo, announcing a big MTA funding commitment, promises subway and bus fares won’t rise for four years. And in fact, people who buy monthly MetroCards will get a de facto fare cut via tax credits. Infrastructure upgrades and lower fares — sweet deal.

New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo and MTA Chairman and CEO Thomas Prendergast rode an E train from Chambers St. to 34 St.-Penn Station on Thu., September 25, 2014 to assure New Yorkers that all security precautions are being taken, and that the subway system is safe amid reports of unspecified threats. Photo: Marc A. Hermann / MTA New York City Transit

Cuomo has mastered the optics of transportation policy. Photo: Marc A. Hermann/MTA New York City Transit via wikimedia

Hard to imagine? For New York City transit riders, yes. But not for people who drive on upstate roads, because yesterday Cuomo promised them the same thing — a huge funding commitment and lower tolls. The rest of New York will be paying for their subsidized driving, while transit riders in the city will face the usual fare hike every two years.

Modest, predictable fare increases aren’t a bad way to go — it beats getting socked by a huge fare hike all at once after putting it off for a long time. What’s galling about Cuomo’s highway subsidies is that the governor is wantonly pandering under the guise of “economic development.” People and industries that depend on upstate highways are a constituency he fawns over; New York City transit riders he takes for granted.

The Thruway toll cuts are part of a parade of proposals that Cuomo is calling “the most ambitious transportation development plan in modern history,” in the run-up to his State of the State address next week. A better description would be “Andrew Cuomo’s transportation politics on steroids.”

The plan has everything we’ve come to expect from Cuomo — giveaways to upstate motorists, glossy monuments of limited practical value (today’s installment: expanding the Javits Center), and no real explanation of how he’s going to pay for it all. Other than the LIRR third track project, which is great, there’s nothing in the package that addresses a major transportation problem or opportunity. This is ambitious?

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Who Will Pay for Cuomo’s Upstate Highway Spending Spree?

Governor Andrew Cuomo continued his run-up to the 2016 State of the State today by announcing a multi-billion dollar subsidy for New York State Thruway drivers and a proposed $22 billion in spending on upstate road projects.

Cuomo would freeze Thruway tolls for all drivers “until at least 2020,” reduce tolls for Thruway motorists who drive the most, commercial traffic included, and eliminate tolls for vehicles owned by farmers, according to a Cuomo press releaseThe toll cuts would be offset by roughly $2 billion in state subsidies for the Thruway Authority. There is no word on how the proposal would affect tolls on the new Tappan Zee Bridge.

While shifting the costs of state highways away from the people who use them, Cuomo has proposed what he calls “the largest capital program in the state’s history” — $22 billion on roads and bridges, “especially in Upstate.” The plan reportedly includes all of $30 million for upstate transit, but transit isn’t mentioned in Cuomo’s press release.

Details on the capital program are scarce. The timetable is unknown. Most important, Cuomo hasn’t said what exactly the $22 billion will be spent on or where it will come from, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario that doesn’t rely heavily on additional general fund borrowing.

Cuomo’s State of the State address is set for January 13.