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Conference Examines State's Infrastructure Needs

Computer rendering of new Tappan Zee Bridge
NYS Thruway Authority
Computer rendering of new Tappan Zee Bridge

State lawmakers say they want to act quickly to spend the state’s $5 billion dollar and growing surplus on an infrastructure fund to fix up roads and bridges, among other things. At a conference on the state’s infrastructure, sponsored by a think tank, participants said there are deep needs, and they warn lawmakers not to spend the money frivolously.  

Speakers at the event, sponsored by the Empire Center, say New York has some major infrastructure needs, including financing of a new Tappan Zee Bridge over the Thruway, and a $15 billion dollar deficit in the MTA budget. At least half of the roads in the state are in need of repair, according to the Washington based non profit known as TRIP, says the groups Frank Moretti.

“Nearly half are in poor or mediocre condition,” said Moretti. “As you move into the poor category, the repairs become significantly more costly”.

Nicole Gelinas, a business journalist and fellow at the fiscally conservative Manhattan Institute, has been studying the finances surrounding the construction of the new Tappan Zee Bridge. Governor Cuomo has yet to release a detailed financial plan, even though construction is underway, saying there are too many variables.  Gelinas says if the state wants to pay for the project, estimated at $4 billion dollars, it will have to raise tolls by three times as high as the current rate of $5.00.

“The Tappan Zee Bridge replacement really threatens to overwhelm the Thruway’s capital plan over the next decade,” Gelinas said.  

She says it would have made more sense to begin raising the tolls gradually, as the construction began, instead of potentially socking motorists with a huge toll increase when the bridge is finished.  Some of Cuomo’s top aides recommended the toll climb to $14 , but the governor said at the time that was too high.

Legislative leaders, in Albany recently for meetings, said they would like  to divvy up the surplus before the end of the year, and not put it into the general fund of the state budget.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he’d like to see a “one time investment” in infrastructure.

In the past governors and legislative leaders have divided up similar pots of money and exercised complete control over how the funds are spent, often using them to reward favored lawmakers by financing projects in their districts, in a process derided in the past as pork barrel spending.

EJ McMahon, President of the Empire Center, warns lawmakers not to be tempted to resort to those past habits.

“The danger is that they will create  pots of capital pork, in the worst case,” McMahon said.

McMahon says it’s a “positive development”, though, that the lawmakers, as well as Governor Cuomo, want to spend the one time windfall surplus, from bank settlements over the financial crisis, for one time expenses.  

“The key question going forward, is how do they define infrastructure,” McMahon said. “In the past the legislature has defined infrastructure  rather broadly.”

He says the state’s current capital budget includes funds for economic development that offers subsidies for corporations, as well as poorly defined $700 million dollar kitty that can be used for any government affiliated building, including college campuses.