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?

The really high priorities for the region — cutting crippling traffic, securing the future of trans-Hudson transit, planning for transit-based growth — are either way out on the margins of Cuomo’s agenda or nowhere to be seen at all.

Cuomo’s upstate agenda is, if anything, even worse. Cities like Buffalo and Syracuse have been hollowed out by highways. The costs of sprawl are impoverishing those regions. More cheap motoring is exactly what they don’t need. Even though better ideas are out there — Syracuse is itching to tear down I-81 to rejuvenate its downtown — Cuomo hasn’t shown any initiative to act on them. His $30 million commitment to upstate transit is 1/733 the size of his $22 billion pledge for roads.

That’s what happens when your “ambitious” transportation policy is guided by vanity, political expedience, and short-term thinking.