Cuomo Fails to Deliver the Hard Charge at Traffic and Transit Reform That New York Desperately Needs

After a year in which subway service reached appalling new lows, jeopardizing the economic health of the entire state, Cuomo spent a scant few minutes discussing the city's transit system in his annual State of the State Address.

Today was supposed to be the big reveal for Andrew Cuomo’s congestion pricing plan, but that will have to wait. Instead of committing to a specific plan to reduce traffic by charging drivers to use the most congested streets in the city, the governor delivered a teaser in today’s State of the State Address.

After a year in which subway service reached appalling new lows, jeopardizing the economic health of the entire state, Cuomo spent a scant few minutes discussing the city’s transit system.

You can find encouragement in some short passages about the need to fix the subways and move beyond “cheap political slogans,” but it was not the hard charge at reform that New York City transit riders need right now. The Cuomo who’s been too enamored with costly, unnecessary infrastructure projects at the expense of basic maintenance for seven years was still commanding the podium today.

The looming question about congestion pricing is whether the governor will commit to a robust cordon fee to curb motor vehicle trips in and around the Manhattan core, along the lines of the Move NY toll reform plan, or opt for an ineffectual political lay-up, like adding a surcharge on for-hire vehicles without charging other types of trips.

After today’s speech, we still don’t know the answer. The governor made a few tantalizing references to congestion pricing but stopped short of committing to specific policies, like a cordon toll, saying that he will “present options” for the state legislature to consider during the upcoming budget season. Here’s a brief recap of what we did learn.

Congestion Pricing

“We must improve the NYC subway system,” Cuomo said. “We have failed to maintain it.” To his credit, Cuomo singled out the “40-year-old cars and 80-year-old signals” that are dragging subway performance down.

He framed the fix as “a question of funding,” including “long-term funding that is fair to all and addresses congestion problems.” This “must be provided in a very tight budget, and it must be provided this session,”  he added. “We can’t leave our riders stranded any longer.”

Rather than put his weight behind a specific policy to generate that long-term funding, Cuomo said his “Fix NYC” commission “will shortly present a report that will have several options for the legislature to consider,” and that “we will have new technology installed which will offer a variety of alternatives defining an exclusive zone in Manhattan where additional charges could be paid.”

Anything less than a real cordon toll plus a fee on for-hire vehicles in the Manhattan core won’t provide the congestion-busting impact that New York needs. It’s not at all clear that Cuomo intends to deliver.

Controlling Costs

The week after the New York Times published a devastating exposé of how MTA capital projects waste billions on labor, consultants, and contractors, Cuomo said nothing about how he plans to deliver critical transit infrastructure at prices in line with global standards. Without such a plan, it’s hard to see how Cuomo will follow through on the system improvements he claims to believe are imperative.

Improving Bus Service

Bus service is hemorrhaging riders at a much more severe pace than the subways. Cuomo’s MTA can speed up service systemwide by rapidly implementing all-door boarding in tandem with the fare system that will replace the MetroCard. But while they move two million passengers each day, New York City buses did not merit a mention in Cuomo’s 92-minute speech.

Mega-Projects New York Doesn’t Need

Cuomo’s penchant for peppering his annual address with big, expensive infrastructure projects that add little to no value to the regional transportation network was on full display. The backward AirTrain to LaGuardia and a car tunnel linking Long Island and Westchester got name-checked. So did the possibility of extending the subway to Red Hook. As a taunt aimed at Mayor de Blasio and his Brooklyn-Queens Streetcar, it’s hard to top. As a solution to the transit problems New Yorkers deal with every day, there are a thousand things more important.