New York Needs Cuomo to Talk Transit in Tomorrow’s State of the State

In his State of the State address tomorrow afternoon, Governor Andrew Cuomo has the opportunity to set the tone for transportation policy in the year ahead. And with the NYC region’s transit system having absorbed billions of dollars worth of damage from Hurricane Sandy, it’s going to be a very important year indeed. Cuomo has to chart a path to recover from the storm and prepare the region’s transit infrastructure for the future, all while maintaining the existing system, which is staggering under the load of excessive debt.

2012 was the year Andrew Cuomo moved forward on the transit-less Tappan Zee Bridge. Will 2013 be the year he focuses on transit in the wake of Hurricane Sandy? Photo: ##

There are some smart ideas in the recently-leaked report from the NYS 2100 Commission, which Cuomo convened after Hurricane Sandy to address the state’s infrastructure needs. The final report is scheduled for official release tomorrow, but draft recommendations obtained by the New York Times suggest a range of transit and transportation investments the governor could pursue.

These include creation of a “world-class” bus rapid transit system, subway storm fortifications, and policy changes to dedicate funds to bicycling and walking. Also on the list: transit construction projects that have been in various stages of discussion or development for some time, like a new rail tunnel beneath the Hudson River and a connection to Penn Station for Metro-North.

The report recommends creating an infrastructure bank to finance capital investments — always a vague suggestion that could end up obscuring how projects are really funded — and an evaluation system to prioritize where dollars should go. But it’s up to the governor to decide which of the report’s recommendations he’d like to focus on.

So tomorrow’s speech should tell New Yorkers if Cuomo is finally going to make a resilient, effective, well-funded transit system a priority.

On top of the new projects identified in the NYS 2100 report, it would be good to see Cuomo address the basics. It can be easy to forget the $4.75 billion in recovery needs already identified by the MTA. Although the agency expects the federal government and its insurers to cover most of the cost, it’s still looking to borrow for about one-fifth of the tab. “That leaves the riders with $1 billion in additional bonding costs,” said Gene Russianoff of the Straphangers Campaign, who wants the governor to propose alternatives to more MTA debt.

MTA debt will grow to be a bigger burden for transit riders if Albany doesn’t figure out a way pay for the agency’s next five-year capital program without massive borrowing backed by fares. Assembly Member Jim Brennan’s bill for a statewide transportation bond measure would shift the debt burden for some of the MTA’s capital investment from riders to the state. “We would love to interest the governor and hear about it in his State of the State,” said Brennan legislative director Lorrie Smith.

Even Brennan’s office has conceded that the bond measure will still leave a big gap in the capital program. A thorough plan to pay for it would also include something more ambitious, like Gridlock Sam Schwartz’s plan to rationalize NYC’s dysfunctional road pricing system.

Tomorrow’s speech also gives Cuomo the opportunity to talk transit beyond the confines of MTA debt and disaster preparedness. The transit task force for the Tappan Zee Bridge replacement project held its first gathering in December, where discussions were very preliminary, attendees tell Streetsblog. (The task force has a long way to go just to catch up to where the transit planning process stood before Cuomo nixed it in 2011.) The task force’s next meeting is on January 18, and it will meet monthly until November, at which point it will make recommendations.

If he chooses, the governor could spotlight the task force and highlight the importance of transit to the region tomorrow. We’ll be watching.